MANAGERS at a controversial new hospital are losing the battle to reduce bed-blocking.

Despite efforts to speed up the discharge of mostly elderly patients - including opening more beds at outlying community hospitals - managers at the University Hospital of North Durham will be told today they are swimming against the tide.

There are fears that more operations will be cancelled and that the hospital will fail to meet tough new patient care targets unless a solution can be found.

The problems experienced at the new £97m Durham City hospital have once again highlighted claims that the replacement for the obsolete Dryburn Hospital was built with too few beds.

The North Durham Health Care NHS Trust argues that the hospital was designed at a time when experts predicted fewer beds would be needed.

But the health union, Unison, said bed numbers were reduced because of the high costs of building the new hospital under the Government's private finance initiative (PFI).

In a paper presented to the North Durham board today, Chris Parry, patient process redesign manager with the trust, reports: "This year to date has seen a rapid increase in delayed discharge, from 21 patients on April 2 to 47 patients on June 17. The 20 beds at South Moor (community hospital) have reduced the impact on University Hospital, but there are still 27 beds blocked throughout the trust, causing difficulties in patient access to acute medical beds."

Earlier in the year, trust officials noticed "a dramatic increase in delayed discharge in the first eleven weeks of this year".

Mr Parry warns: "If this rate continues with no change the trust will continue to experience difficulty in reaching modernisation targets."

The reasons for delayed discharge remain the same as in previous years - lack of funding, patients exercising their choice of old people's home to be sent to, and the availability of beds, officials add.

An increase in the number of delayed discharges of mentally infirm elderly patients, who need special nursing care, has also caused difficulties for the North Durham trust.

Steven Mason, chief executive of the North Durham trust, said while better collaboration with social services had increased the capacity within the system, extra resources were needed to improve the situation.

"If we could reduce the amount of delayed discharges it will improve the service we can provide to patients waiting for a bed in accident and emergency and patients waiting to be admitted for surgery," he said.

Doctors in the region have said they believe that at any one time there is probably the equivalent of an entire hospital of blocked beds in the North-East, with some patients waiting months for discharge.