NSW govt's 'virtual beds' creating false bed count impression

08 December, 2014

The NSW health system has come under attack from NSW Labor following allegations its bed count includes patients sleeping in their own homes and those being moved between hospitals – otherwise known as "virtual beds".

In a policy directive obtained by the opposition, virtual beds is a category used when there are no physical beds available in a hospital, as well as "the second or third establishment of the same physical bed". Those taking up virtual beds comprise those in "hospital in the home" program; aged, disability and mental health patients in social day programs; patients in mobile beds within a vehicle; and patients staying with relatives.

NSW opposition spokesperson Walt Secord said including "virtual beds" in the bed count was a "glorified paper exercise" to create the illusion there were more beds available than there actually were.

"The word 'virtual' is, to my mind, a bed that doesn't exist," Secord said.

In February, NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner said the state was on track to meeting its target of 1390 beds being made available by March 2015.

Although NSW Health, in its annual report, stated NSW had 21,268 beds in 2013-14 – an increase of 576 beds in five years – most of the increase had been met by "other hospital beds", such as hospital in home.

Increasing transparency

Skinner said separating beds into a broad range of categories was in effort to increase transparency, and also helped hospitals manage patient flow.

A NSW Health spokesperson  said hospital in home was a "nationally recognised and highly valuable service modality".

NSW Australian Medical Association president Saxon Smith said the government's figures made it unclear just how many beds had been added to the health system, and in any case it was not keeping up with demand.

"We will be calling for commitment to increased bed numbers so that a target of 85 per cent bed occupancy at 5pm allows for surge capacity in the hospital system and minimises bed block," he said.