COUNTY hospitals are at breaking point as staff treat record numbers of emergency patients with pressure set to grow over winter.

Emergency demand is 14.5 per cent higher than this time last year across Worcestershire acute hospitals, including Redditch’s Alexandra Hospital, but plans are in place to deal with even higher numbers over winter.

For the first five months of this financial year (April-August 2012/13) the trust treated 20,648 emergency patients compared with 18,198 in the same period for 2011/12, meaning staff have had to cope with an extra 2,450 patients so far.

If pressure continues to rise, bosses even plan to re-open Highfield ward at Worcestershire Royal Hospital in Worcester, which was due to close at the end of last week.

The challenge was discussed at a recent meeting of Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust when chief operating officer Stewart Messer said he was “not confident” demand would come down.

He said: “The last two weeks in September have been particularly challenging. We would be surprised if the peak for September is not far off the July peak.”

After the meeting, he said: “If demand goes up to 20 per cent next month we will get to a point where things start to become untenable.”

For every emergency patient the trust treats over an agreed threshold, the county’s hospitals have to pay back 70 per cent of the tariff to their NHS paymasters.

So far they have paid out a £2.3 million rebate, which is projected to reach £5.5 million at the end of 2012/13.

The trust also risks being fined £22,000 a month every time staff fail to see, treat or discharge at least 95 per cent of patients within four hours.

Health bosses have worked out at least 20 extra beds would be needed to cope with the increased demand between January and March next year although, at peak times, as many as 45 beds could be needed.

At Worcestershire Royal Hospital 22 beds could be used at Highfield ward to cope with the extra patients, costing the trust between £800,000 and £900,000 to staff.

The trust plan to use their own nurses to staff the ward.

Bosses say they are also prepared to open extra beds at the Alex Hospital.

Up to 20 beds may also have to be used across the county’s five community hospitals including Bromsgrove.

In a worst case scenario, commissioners have agreed to purchase between 10 and 20 additional beds in nursing homes to cope.