Cash-strapped hospitals are being forced to spend millions of pounds every year replacing unreturned, broken or missing crutches, an investigation has found.
Data disclosed to the Press Association under the Freedom of Information Act found nearly four in every five (78%) aids such as walking sticks, wheelchairs and crutches were never brought back by English hospital patients.
Figures from 66 NHS trusts in England showed more than £14 million was spent on nearly 560,000 walking aids since January 2014.
Of those trusts with relevant data, 67,491 aids were returned by patients, while nearly four times that number (241,779) went missing. Just over 3,000 were returned in such a poor condition that they had to be scrapped.
However, the true extent of the cost is expected to be much higher, as nearly half of all NHS trusts failed to provide data, and those who did often had incomplete figures.
Different hospitals adopted polar opposite policies regarding returns – and while some requested patients brought walking aids back, others said the cost of cleaning and maintaining crutches meant there was no value in reusing them.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association charity, 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.”
Many hospitals contacted by the Press Association said they did nothing to track down where equipment was.
This included Bedford Hospital, which spent nearly £25,000 in 12 months on crutches, yet does not keep a record on those returned.
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Hospital said it advised patients its sticks and crutches were single-use, while London’s Royal Marsden Hospital said walking frames are not redeemed by the trust because the cost of retrieving them is greater than the cost of the equipment.
Southend Hospital said it had a “robust in-house cleaning and maintenance process”, and that patients generally “look after the equipment and do not abuse it”. They said approximately 60% of walking aids are returned – a rate which has remained stable for the last three years, despite attempts to encourage greater reuse.
Airedale said it has an annual amnesty.
A Department of Health spokesman 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.”