LEADING medics warned that patients will be put at risk this winter as the latest figures show further cuts in hospital bed numbers.

A total of 429 hospital beds were lost across NHS Scotland in the 12 months to March this year amid a push to reduce admissions treat more more patients in the community.

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It means the total number of beds available across the health service in Scotland has fallen by 7.2% in the space of five years, from 22,553 in 2013/14 to 20,911 in 2017/18.

Professor Derek Bell, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said: “Further reduction in beds at this stage is very likely to have an impact on urgent and elective care.

"Such decisions should be based on clinical, patient and staff requirements, and not on the need to make financial savings.”

It comes as health boards finalise their winter plans. Ward occupancy levels tend to peak during the coldest months and last year NHS Tayside took the unprecedented step of cancelling all routine operations for a three-week period, from December 18 to January 8, to ease pressure on beds over the festive season when staffing was lowest.

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Outbreaks of flu and severe snowfalls, including the 'Beast from the East' in February, also heaped pressure on A&E units and hospital beds last winter.

Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of BMA Scotland, said: “As winter approaches, there will be increased pressure on hospitals to treat more patients as quickly and safely as they can.

"Boards need to ensure that they have plans in place to ensure that these bed cuts do not impact on the quality of care they are able to provide.

“We have been raising concerns about the increasing gap between patients’ needs and resources across the NHS in Scotland for some time.

"A failure to provide the investment required will ultimately result in poorer outcomes for patients.”

It comes after figures last week revealed that bed blocking rates in Scotland - where patients are well enough to leave hospital but cannot be discharged due to a lack of social care or care home place - were the highest in two years.

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Shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said the NHS could not afford to lose more beds amid Scotland's growing and ageing population.

He said: “The SNP will no doubt argue that the way people are being cared for is changing, and that involves moving people out of hospital and back into the community.

“And while that may be partly true, it doesn’t account for an increasing and ageing population which is going to place more pressure on the NHS.

“That’s why the number of beds should be going up – not reducing.

“At no point has the SNP government provided the scoping evidence on the future bed demands NHS Scotland will need.

“However, SNP ministers have been quick to cut NHS beds out of hospitals across the country.

“With delayed discharge increasing and waiting times lengthening, it’s clear that a lack of beds is contributing to this.”

It comes as figures published on ISD Scotland, the Government's health statistics body, showed that the average cost of a hospital stay in Scotland was £2,971 in 2017/18, up 3.8% in real terms compared to 2013/14. 

The average cost of inpatient treatment varied from £2,206 in Lanarkshire to £6,059 in Orkney, but 49.3% of frontline NHS spending is now on community health services. 

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said this indicated “good progress” in health and social care integration.

She added: “Importantly, we are continuing to see an increase in the balance of expenditure in primary care and community services from our acute sector.

"This is in line with our efforts to bring more services into the community so that people have better options closer to home, and do not need to spend time in hospital if they do not need to be there.

“There are around 700 intermediate care beds available across Scotland to support this approach that are not captured in these hospital bed statistics.

"Driven by reform and extra investment, we remain on track to deliver more than half of frontline NHS spending in community health services by the end of the parliament.”