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UK hospitals risk losing key services during disaster

Published: 10 March 2022 at 00:01

The exterior of an NHS hospital

Study suggests 39% of staff may not be able to attend work during extreme events

New research warns that UK hospitals face losing significant capacity and some vital services during extreme events or disasters due to factors such as a lack of adequate training, and a failure to consider the personal circumstances of staff.

A total of 197 staff from an unnamed NHS hospital took part in the study, carried out by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Various job roles were represented, from clerical staff and management to doctors, nurses and allied health workers.

Factors such as a paucity of training for extreme events, caring responsibilities, commuting distance and mental resilience were significant factors affecting whether hospital workers felt able to carry out their duties during and after an extreme event.

The study found the overall average capability of attendance for staff was 61%, with a risk of losing approximately 39% of staff during an extreme event.

Among those surveyed, mental resilience varied between 60% and 68% on average for all participants, indicating staff are under mental pressure. 

With regards to training, 91% of staff reported having no practical training for an extreme event, and 75% no theory training.

Although 72% of staff were deemed to have a high chance of attendance due to living in close proximity to the hospital, around 40% had dependents such as children, parents or partners, providing a risk to attendance during a time of extreme strain.

The study established that vital equipment, such as MRI scanners or ventilators might cease to function if specialist staff were absent. Technicians were the staff category least likely to be able to attend work in an extreme event. However, the findings suggested they also had the highest impact on services (62%) when they are absent. They are often the only staff members who can operate certain machinery such as laboratory IT systems and blood machines.

Of the workers surveyed, 89% found their work varied and meaningful, while 66% had worked for the hospital for more than 11 years.

Lead author Dr Nebil Achour, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“Healthcare services are among the most intricate and vital services in the world. The influx of COVID-19 patients has increased the requirement for capacity and resources in hospitals. 

“However, staffing levels are adversely affected during such times of strain, creating a perfect storm. UK hospitals are still struggling with a backlog of cancelled operations and services due to the pandemic.

“Many workplaces, including hospitals, tend to overlook the personal circumstances of staff and set expectations that are difficult for staff to achieve, particularly if they have caring responsibilities or live a significant distance from the workplace. This failure to consider personal circumstances increases stress levels and mental resilience, which in turn reduces capability to attend work. 

“The likelihood of extreme events is increasing, such as storms, floods and new pandemics. Healthcare managers need to be aware of the need to mitigate against some of these risks.

“Going forward, hospitals need to adopt a more comprehensive approach where disaster management is incorporated into a broader strategy of disaster mitigation.”

The research was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.