Almost four out of five walking aids given out by hospitals are never returned or reused, costing the cash-strapped NHS millions of pounds every year.
That’s according to new research by the Press Association (PA), which used the Freedom of Information Act to gather figures from 66 NHS Trusts in England. They showed that 78% of aids such as walking sticks, crutches, walking frames and wheelchairs given out to patients were not returned or reused.
In the five years since January 2014, the 66 NHS Trusts supplying figures to the PA investigation spent more than £14.6 million on nearly 560,000 walking aids – an average cost of around £26 per item. Of those trusts with relevant data, the figures showed 67,491 aids were returned by patients, but nearly four times that number (241,779) went missing. Just over 3,000 aids were returned in such poor condition that they had to be scrapped.
More worrying still is that nearly half of the NHS Trusts contacted as part of the investigation failed to provide data, while those which did often had incomplete figures. This means the true cost to the NHS of unreturned or single-use walking aids is expected to be far higher.
However, the investigation also showed the problem is not only with patients failing to return equipment once they no longer need it. In many cases, hospitals did not actively encourage the return of equipment, while some actively discouraged it. They justified this by saying the cost of cleaning equipment to a sterile condition, or repairing it, was greater than replacing it with new.
Rachel Power, chief executive of national charity the Patients Association, said: “Patients are often bewildered that the NHS does not ask for equipment back when they have finished using it, and sometimes even find that the NHS can make it bafflingly hard when they try to return it.
“This can raise questions in people’s minds about the efficiency of the NHS, and even undermine confidence in it – all completely needlessly. We’d like to see an NHS where patients are able to return equipment that is no longer needed, and where equipment will be sensibly recycled and reused when it can be.
“Schemes should be developed locally with the direct involvement of patients, both to ensure they work for patients who want to return equipment, and to avoid insensitivity, for instance when a person who was using equipment has died.”
Some of the hospitals contacted by the Press Association did have in-house operations dedicated to retrieving, cleaning and reusing walking aids and other equipment loaned to patients, but many more did not and some didn’t even keep records on what equipment was loaned out. Very few actively pursued the return of equipment, although some did hold an annual ‘amnesty’ in which loaned equipment could be returned.
Others actually told patients who were given walking aids that they were ‘single-use’ and should not be returned, because the cost of cleaning and refurbishing them to a standard suitable for use by other patients made it impractical.
Commenting on the PA investigation, a spokesman for the Government’s Department of Health said: “Far too often, medical equipment like wheelchairs and walking sticks are being used once before ending up on a landfill. As we announced earlier this year, we want to put a stop to this unacceptably wasteful practice.
“People rightly expect the NHS to make sensible use of their money and also become more environmentally friendly – it’s great to see Trusts across the country recycle equipment where it is safe and appropriate to do so. Ahead of the long-term plan for the NHS, we urge more Trusts to drive savings in this way to reinvest in frontline services.”