June 21, 2016
The constant level of pressure that faces the NHS in the UK may make sharps injuries and other care compromises significantly more likely, particularly in light of the fact that a new report suggests a struggling, overstretched health service is the 'new normal'.
This is the opinion of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which has warned that the standard of care being provided throughout the country is going to be adversely affected unless dramatic action is taken to ease pressure on doctors and nurses working for the NHS.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, commented: "Having once been the preserve of the worst weeks of winter, overwhelming pressure and major incidents have sadly become the new normal. Despite the best efforts and dedication of the staff, these pressures are affecting patients at every stage of their treatment.
"It is time we had a serious look at how long hospitals can continue to function when they are consistently underfunded and understaffed."
Here, we take a look at the pressures the NHS is currently facing, as well as what the situation may mean for sharps safety.
NHS under pressure
Nurses who attended the recent RCN annual conference in Glasgow highlighted a number of areas where the NHS is facing increasing levels of pressure, meaning the best possible standard of care cannot necessarily be delivered. These included ambulances having to be deployed to treat patients outside A&E departments, as there is not always enough space inside to cope with demand.
Meanwhile, there are stories of beds being left in hospital corridors due to overcrowding on wards and in some cases, elderly patients are having to move out of their beds in the middle of the night to make way for new patients.
As a result of this, doctors and nurses are calling for action to be taken by the UK government to increase funding for the NHS to ease some of the pressure facing the health service, and to allow it to leave behind the 'endless winter' it is currently going through.
What's more, Dr Mark Porter, leader of the British Medical Association (BMA) highlighted figures that show the number of hospital beds in England has been cut by over one-fifth during the past ten years, leaving just 103,000.
At the BMA's recent Belfast conference, health experts explained that countries including Romania, Belgium and Austria have more than double the number of beds available per head of population than the UK, further demonstrating the extent of the struggles the NHS is facing at present.
Medics themselves are also finding it difficult to cope with the situation, as they are facing intense pressures to provide the highest possible standard of care and to safeguard patients' wellbeing, but, at the same time, they do not have the resources or capacity to cope.
Janet Youd, chair of the RCN's emergency care association, explained that more nurses are leaving their posts after just a few months than ever before due to these pressures, while emergency nurse practitioner Roisin Devlin added: "We've now got to the point where we normalise the abnormal - nurses leaving shifts in tears, for example."
What does this mean for sharps safety?
As a result of the high level of pressure facing the NHS that appears to have become the norm throughout the year rather than just in the winter months as has been the case in the past, it is a natural knock-on effect that care will be compromised.
Consequently, sharps injuries and other easily-avoidable mistakes may be more likely, potentially leading to the spread of infections such as HIV and hepatitis C, which can be transferred from one person's blood to another's when a needlestick injury occurs or when contaminated equipment is used.
At a time of immense pressure, mistakes such as allowing patients to be discharged too early could also take place, while those with weaker immune systems or more complex needs may see their conditions worsen in hospital if they do not have access to a proper bed in a proper ward.
Many medical professionals are hoping that the outcome of this week's EU referendum will lead to a significant increase in funding for the NHS, helping to prevent the risk of sharps injuries and other mistakes, alongside easing the level of pressure facing doctors, nurses and other staff.
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