How much will winter cost the NHS?

Colds, cases of influenza and ice related accidents drastically increased during the winter. Hospital admissions and treatments also increased as a result.

The cost of the cold weather is very significant for the National Health Service (NHS) and puts a huge strain on the staff. The government has even thought of drafting in the armed forces to help if things get too tough for the emergency services.

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Hospital admissions during the winter

As the temperature drops, the NHS sees a weekly increase in the rate of admissions. A study by the North West Public Heath Observatory found that hospital admissions due to winter falls cost the health service an average of £42 million per year.

The research used winter admission statistics from 2005 to 2010, and found that the winter of 2009/ 2010 had the highest number of emergency admissions due to snow and ice.

That winter was one of the coldest the UK has seen for 30 years and the number of emergency admissions was 18 times higher than the mildest winter over the five year period, which was 2007/2008.

The research highlighted that older people are more likely to be admitted as a result of a fall on snow and ice.

In the winter of 2009/10 there were 36,000 more emergency hospital admissions in the North West compared to the rest of the country. The research predicted that the estimated cost for every 1,000 excess emergency admissions in the North West is £2.4 million. This implies that the cost of excess emergency admissions to hospitals alone could be just over £86 million.

The research found that cold homes and low outdoor temperatures are associated with increased hospital admissions and deaths in the winter.

When the temperature is below 1∞C, the number of reported falls tends to increase. This means that the cost of colder winters could be significantly higher than previously predicted.
Dr Caryl Beynon, in her recently published research entitled ëThe Environmental Health Journal, stated;

ìThe total cost of these accidents to the health services is like to be much higher than reported. This is because the calculation does not include patients who went to hospital but were not admitted, not patients who went to their GP or pharmacist, or visited a ëwalk-iní centre.

ìIt also does not address the long-term costs of rehabilitation or recuperation in a nursing home. With responsibility for health improvement moving to local councils, they will have to balance the cost of winter public health measures, like gritting, with the healthcare costs associated with falls.î

Poor festive diets
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) found that the average person in the UK will consume around 6,000 calories on Christmas day alone. In addition to that, during the festive period the average person will consume an extra 500 calories per day, resulting in a weight gain of 5lb by the time January comes around.

Whilst junk food and high fat meals are the protocol for Christmas, they are also linked to a wide range of health problems such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Further research has found that poor eating habits cost the NHS up to £2.43 billion per year. David Winter, senior lecturer in Econometrics at Bristol University, found that NHS spending could fall by as much as 3.8% should improvements in diets reduce the gap between the healthiest and least healthy people in the UK.

On this basis, savings of up to £2.43 billion could be made each year. His study also pointed out that if the entire population was in the healthiest top 10 %, NHS expenditure could be cut by up to 38%.

Government spending

The government recently announced plans to tackle the issue of winter health problems. Thousands of people across the UK become prone to health risks due to a lack of heating in their homes. Vulnerable households, which include single parents and pensioners, are often hit the hardest. Currently 7 million vulnerable UK households are living in fuel poverty, according to research by a price comparison website.

The Department of Health has responded with a £30 million injection to help vulnerable people insulate their homes. Cold housing costs the NHS in England around £850 million a year with hospital admissions and GP appointments.

Almost 30,000 people in England and Wales die every winter as a result of increased heart disease, strokes, influenza and chest problems. Thousands more suffer from serious illnesses and injuries caused by falls in icy weather.

The governmentís new Cold Weather Plan will alert NHS trusts and Age UK to falling temperatures. The most extreme alert is level 4, which could see the armed forces being rafted in to help the emergency services keep the country moving. The plan comes after last December saw the coldest recorded temperatures for 100 years.

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