Long waits in accident and emergency (A&E) departments may have caused some 23,000 “excess patient deaths” last year, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) has warned.
The medical college said that in 2022, almost 1.66 million people in England waited for more than 12 hours in A&E from the moment they arrived, using data obtained via a Freedom of Information request to NHS Digital.
It warned that long waiting times can have “catastrophic consequences for patient safety and mortality”.
Official figures published by NHS England only measure waiting times from when a decision is made to admit them, until when they are seen. Official data shows 347,703 patients waited 12 hours from when an admission decision was made.
The RCEM found that in 2022, 1,656,206 patients in England waited 12 hours or more from their time of arrival in an emergency department until they were admitted, transferred or discharged.
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the RCEM, said: “These data, while shocking, are unsurprising.
“Long waiting times are associated with serious patient harm and patient deaths – the scale shown here for 2022 is deeply distressing.
“The data show how necessary it is to have transparent figures.”
The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England will start publishing the 12-hour data from the time of arrival in the emergency department regularly from April this year, he said.
Dr Boyle said that “being honest with the data will be a service to patients and staff” but added that “staff, beds and resources” are needed to transform the emergency care system.
An NHS England spokesman said the cause of excess deaths is down to “a number of different factors” so attributing deaths to just one thing is “very unlikely to give a full or certain picture”.
They said: “The data highlighted looks at time in A&E rather than waits and covers a year when the NHS experienced four record-breaking months for attendances in A&E.
“The NHS is focused on improving patient flow through emergency departments and increasing the number of patients being discharged when they are medically ready.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “There are a wide variety of factors contributing to excess deaths and it is important not to ascribe them to one cause.
“However, no-one should have to wait longer than necessary to access urgent and emergency care and it’s encouraging to see significant improvements in performance last month including across all ambulance response times categories and in A&E departments.”