Letter: Comparing hospital bed data by country is tricky

In “Multiple maladies leave NHS in critical condition” (Report, January 4) you use OECD international comparisons of total hospital bed numbers as part of the explanation for the NHS’s woes. This appears to show that the UK has two beds per 1,000 people, four times fewer than Germany and six times fewer than Japan!

Ask yourself, is this plausible? As someone who has studied in hospitals in both the UK and Japan, I can tell you it is certainly not.

Japan does not have six times as many hospitals, nor are they six times as large, and the number of doctors per capita is actually lower than in the UK. What the data reflect is very different ways of counting hospital beds.

The UK only counts the number of beds that could all be in use at once — ie that are fully staffed — and it clearly separates hospital beds from residential social care. Equivalent standards are not followed in all countries included in the chart. This is acknowledged by the OECD but not by everyone who reuses this information.

While too few hospital beds is indeed an issue, these dodgy data may lead to an unfortunate misdiagnosis of the key problem. As noted by Adrian Boyle, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (quoted in the article), increasing the capacity of social care would be the way to boost the number of beds available most quickly, even though this would not be counted as adding beds (in the UK at least).

Ewan Gray
Manchester, UK

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