Experts believe that the financial position of the NHS is increasingly precarious, citing the evidence of hospitals cancelling tens of thousands of operations recently.
The cancellations occurred in order to avert what could have been a true crisis during the winter months, despite the fact that weather conditions were rather mild and thus conducive to general good health.
And the King’s Fund suggests that the extra demands created during December and January will have a significantly negative impact on the efforts of NHS trusts to balance their books.
A lengthy backlog of patients due to widespread postponement of procedures will ensure longer waits for operations in the early spring months, according to Richard Marie, director of policy at the King’s Fund.
“Increasing spending on agency staff, outsourcing work to the private sector and suspending planned treatment may have helped to relieve pressure in the short term but are likely to result in a nasty hangover as hospital finances take a hit and waiting times increase further,” Marie asserted.
So sharp is the deterioration in the financial picture of the NHS, it is even possible that the Department of Health could completely bust its budget for the existing financial year, in the opinion of the King’s Fund.
The latest quarterly monitoring report produced by the authoritative think tank predicts that the NHS will find it impossible to work within its existing budget for the remainder of the decade.
Hospital trusts accumulated a collective deficit in the region of £2.5 billion in the previous fiscal period.
And 53% of hospital trusts and 63% of NHS clinical commissioning groups that the King’s Fund surveyed are fairly or very pessimistic about ending 2017/18 in financial balance.
In this context, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will be possible to get anywhere near the £22 billion figure for efficiency savings requested by Simon Stevens of NHS England.
“Financial pressures mean some trusts are reducing their workforce, with 29% of finance directors reporting that their organisations have plans to reduce permanent clinical headcount,” the King’s Fund’s analysis suggested.
Quality of care is particularly at risk according to the think tank, with the majority of hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups surveyed indicating their view that patient care has deteriorated over the last 12 months.
“It will be very challenging to reduce the clinical workforce at a time when many NHS hospitals are routinely running at high bed-occupancy levels and demand continues to rise,” the report stated.
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the report, and suggested that the NHS system simply requires more resources in order to be functional.
“We’re pleased this report shows, without any doubt, that the recent winter pressures that have been facing our colleagues in emergency departments have not been because GPs – or any other clinicians in the NHS – aren’t working hard enough, but that the resources and workforce to cope with escalating patient demand simply aren’t there.”