Some hospitals have seen a five-fold increase in demand for oxygen, a senior medic has said.
Rupert Pearse, a member of the Intensive Care Society, said that on some occasions that has meant oxygen is “hard to deliver”.
“We’re seeing a massive number of patients not just in intensive care, but also in general medical wards, who need oxygen,” he told Sky News.
“We’re seeing five-fold increases in oxygen demand and in a lot of hospitals, and, unsurprisingly, that’s hard to deliver on occasions.”
Watch: ‘I’ve never seen the NHS under so much pressure’, says ICU doctor
The consultant in intensive care medicine said that there are “lots of solutions” to the issue but the problem was “another contributor to the cognitive load” of already overstretched doctors.
Professor Pearse likened hospital oxygen delivery systems to a hot water system, adding: “If the pressure in your hot water system gets very low, it’s not that the water stops flowing completely, it’s just that you’re not getting the pressure in the shower that you might like and that can cause technical problems around the place.
“You might need to think about how can you avoid wasting water, or you might turn off some taps that you don’t need, or turn down when you don’t need much water.”
Solutions include turning off oxygen when it is not being used, making sure patients are getting the correct flow and not too much, and new technologies.
This combination of measures are being highlighted by “oxygen marshals” who are educating other members of staff about how to be more “effective” with the oxygen supply, Prof Pearse said.
He added: “The problem really is that it is yet another problem we need to solve. It’s yet another thing that we need to keep an eye on and watch. It’s just another contributor to the cognitive load.
“So for me, this isn’t so much about can patients get enough oxygen, it’s much more a signal, a marker that the NHS is still under immense pressure.
“Even though we’ve seen a peak in infections, we’re still seeing very, very large numbers of patients in hospitals, 40,000 patients in hospital with Covid-19. Ten per cent of those in intensive care.
“And that demand is going to carry on for some months. And we know it’s going to be a very, very hard year in 2021, we’ll still be looking after a lot of Covid patients in June.”
— Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (@hsib_org) January 15, 2021
It comes after health investigators launched a probe into the provision of piped oxygen gas supplies to hospitals.
The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) launched a national investigation after a hospital trust declared a major incident when demands on its oxygen supply led to patients being diverted to different hospitals and a need to transfer patients between clinical environments.
The trust had sufficient supplies of liquid oxygen available but its piped oxygen system was unable to deliver the volume of oxygen gas required to meet all patient needs, the HSIB said.
The HSIB said there has been increased demand for oxygen during the pandemic.
It warned that insufficient oxygen supply to seriously-ill patients can have very severe consequences, including death.
Meanwhile BOC, the main oxygen supplier to the NHS, said in a statement on its website that it has helped with 30 “system upgrades” to increase the capabilities of oxygen delivery systems in hospitals across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
NHS Providers, which represents acute, ambulance, community and mental health services, called for NHS trusts to be awarded capital funding to address important maintenance work.
Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?