One in four terminally ill people who need expert end-of-life care are not receiving it because of funding pressures, the hospice movement has told Sky News.
Hospice UK say that as many as 118,000 people in the UK with terminal or life-limiting conditions are not able to access palliative care from its members.
Britain’s 200 hospices treat around 200,000 people every year but, with an ageing population, demand for their services is growing.
Hospices offer palliative care to improve the quality of life of those dying, as well as emotional and psychological support to families facing bereavement.
On average hospices, most of which are charities, receive just one-third of their funding from the NHS and rely on donations, shops, bequests and investments for the rest.
Hospice UK say two-thirds of hospices had their NHS funding cut or frozen last year.
They argue that with more certain funding they could treat many more people, significantly easing the pressure on NHS hospitals.
Around 500,000 people die in England and Wales every year, half of them in hospitals despite many of them having no clinical need to be there.
“What we really want to see is more stability and sustainability in funding,” Jonathan Ellis, head of advocacy at Hospice UK, told Sky News.
“If we just look at last year, two-thirds of hospices had their funding cut or frozen, adding more pressure to hospices at precisely the time demand is growing and more people need the care hospices provide.
“At the moment the NHS spending an awful lot of money on very often not meeting the needs of those at the end of life very effectively. Half of people will die in a hospital bed when they don’t have a clinical need to be there, and hospitals are the most expensive bit of the system, and the part that is under the most pressure.”
Sky News has been given exclusive access to St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield, speaking to staff, patients and families about the impact hospice care can have on the terminally ill and their loved ones.
We visited patients at home with a rapid response team of palliative care nurses who treat the most seriously ill, as well as interviewing in-patients and their families.
Most spoke openly and with remarkable honesty about their conditions and their attitude to death. Many praised the hospice for helping them prepare for death, and the support given to their families.
Jean Knight, who had multiple cancers, told us how she refused to become negative despite her terminal diagnosis and grave condition. She was treated at home and was determined to stay there with her husband Richard.
“You have got two choices,” she told us. “Quality or quantity. What would you like? Quality. If you’ve got quality of life, you’ve got everything you need.
“You get your dignity [from hospice care]. If you ask something, they give it to you. If you ask for pain relief it’s there straight away. They don’t make you wait for anything.”
She added: “They’re so much on the ball. They’re an absolutely fantastic place. I couldn’t fault them.”
A month after we first interviewed Mrs Knight she died, surrounded by her family.
St Luke’s chief executive Peter Hartland said it receives just 25% of its funding from the NHS, and has to raise £6m every year from public donations and a chain of charity shops.
He said that charitable status allows the hospice more discretion about how it spends its money – for example they run a high-quality kitchen making food to order – but said a doubling of NHS funding for hospices could have a huge impact on care across Sheffield.
“If you took a poll of my peers across the country there would be consensus that we want better funding for hospice and palliative care,” he said.
“We are after a more level playing field for what would be seen as essential services in our city, and without them the whole of the healthcare sector in Sheffield would be worse off.”
Last year the Government made a commitment to improve end of life care across the country, which includes offering every patient a chance to discuss plans for their death with doctors and carers.