ELDERLY care is being jeopardised by the increasing numbers of older people being moved to non-specialist wards to clear beds for new patients, a damning new report has found.

The practice, known as boarding, can lead to frail and vulnerable patients having to remain in hospital for longer periods than intended.

In the report, researchers at Dundee University's School of Medicine highlight how "boarding" is becoming increasingly common. Instead of aiding recovery, boarding can increase anxiety for patients, and even promote the spread of infections around a hospital as patients are moved to wards that are not designed to cope with their care.

A recent survey of medical staff found that 92% of doctors would refuse to have a relative of theirs boarded out as the practice is detrimental to health.

Earlier this month, The Herald revealed how boarding was a common practice in Scotland involving thousands of sick patients. We reported how on one winter's day alone more than 500 medically unwell patients were boarding on wards intended for other patients. Even on the first Monday in May, more than 100 people had to be farmed out.

The article was one of a series The Herald has been running on pressures facing the health service as a result of the ageing population.

In an editorial published in Age and Ageing, the journal of the British Geriatrics Society, Professor Marion McMurdo and Dr Miles Witham of Dundee University's School of Medicine claim that a reduction in bed numbers and an increase in hospital admissions is behind the trend, which flies in the face of evidence showing that changes of environment increase falls and delirium – exposing elderly patients to high risk of serious injury and increased death rates.

Boarding patients away from dedicated elderly care units deprives them of Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment – a method of care which has been shown to reduce future hospital admissions.

The evidence shows that when frail older people are admitted to hospital and looked after in a specialist unit for older people with a dedicated multi-disciplinary team they are 25% more likely to survive and be able to return to independent living at the end of their stay.

Professor McMurdo said: "Boarding is sometimes viewed as a necessary evil – at least compared to the alternative of having no bed in which to admit patients from the overflowing acute admissions unit. Yet at a systems level, boarding appears to be a false economy – every ward move increases length of stay thus exacerbating the very problem that boarding attempts to circumvent. Worse still, frequent moves around a hospital are likely to increase the risk of infection transmission, a factor trusts have been advised to incorporate into bed management policies."

Dr Witham said that it was an inescapable fact that hospitals face increasing pressure on bed availability. He added: "The majority of patients being boarded are frail, elderly and cognitively impaired because most patients admitted acutely to hospital have these characteristics, and because such patients are likely to stay in hospital long enough to fall victim to boarding. We need to be honest and open with patients and their families and explain the risks associated with unnecessary ward moves."

Dr Neil Dewhurst, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), said frail and vulnerable elderly patients were "disproportionately affected" by boarding.

He added: "Such patients are likely to be the least likely to be able to cope with repeated ward moves. There is evidence that this can increase their length of stay, their likelihood of readmission to hospital and reduce their likelihood of continuing to live independently at home. This, in turn, creates a vicious circle and places further pressure on already over-stretched hospital services.

"We have an insufficiency of properly supported acute beds in Scottish hospitals to ensure that these patients are treated in the right wards, by the right medical staff and at the right time."

The RCPE is working with the ­Scottish Government to reduce boarding and is due to publish a guidance document about the practice this year.

Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "Scotland is the first country in the UK to deal with the issue of boarding to further improve the quality of care in our hospitals.

"In December we adopted a new collaborative work programme between the RCPE and NHS Scotland that will address the practice. This work has begun and is proving productive. However, there is more to be done and this will involve reviewing the number and speciality type of beds for acute care, ensuring that there are enough medical consultants and nurses and having daily reviews of patients by consultants."

Scottish Labour's health spokesman Neil Findlay said: "If measures are not taken soon, the issue of boarding is a crisis that will happen as we cope with the growing demands of an ageing population. That 92% of doctors wouldn't allow family to be boarded shows that it's a practice that doesn't deliver the standards of patient care our elderly population need."