Dozens of patients have been forced to queue for hours at a time for blood tests at West Suffolk Hospital due to a staff shortage.
In one instance, the Bury Free Press understands patients queued for up to three hours with 70 other people for the procedure.
One patient, Gareth Davies, who has to have weekly blood tests, said the department was ‘bursting at the seams’.
The situation arose after a private provider temporarily suspended its services in local GP practices due to an unanticipated staff shortage.
The Pathology Partnership, which contracts blood testing services to West Suffolk Hospital, said the situation was compounded by an ‘unprecedented increase in demand’.
Mr Davies, 62, said: “The first time I arrived at the hospital, at about 8.30am, I was shocked to find 43 patients ahead of me with only two nurses taking samples.
“On one recent trip, as I arrived at about 10am, I could not believe the number of people. There were 51 queuing ahead of me.
“On another occasion I went later in the day, about 5.30pm, and there were still 30 to 40 people in the queue.
“Some said they have had to wait for two and a half to three hours with 60 or 70 other people.
“The department is absolutely bursting at the seams. You get a lot of frustrated people, like me, who do not want to have to wait that long.”
Mr Davies, of Tannery Drive, Bury St Edmunds, said he tried arriving at the hospital at 7.35am, five minutes after the clinic opened, and was 39th in the queue. The following week he arrived even earlier, at 7.10am, and found 25 people already waiting.
He reported seeing patients, ‘some infirm or with walking sticks’, made to stand in the corridors while they waited as staff were not allowed to provide them with chairs ‘for health and safety reasons’.
Patients were given numbered tickets upon arrival, but Mr Davies said up to eight or nine numbers could be called in a row with no-one coming forward.
He said: “What became clear was that these people must have waited and waited before deciding to just go home.”
He noticed that ‘generally’ only two of the available booths were being used, and added that if there were still queues when the department closed at 7pm the nurses had to turn the remaining patients away.
“The nurses are doing a fantastic job but are working 12-hour shifts,” he said. “They say there is no let up because the surgeries are sending all their patients to the hospital and the demand far outstrips the resources.
“The hospital is talking about training other people up, but it is after the horse has bolted really.
“I know it costs money for the surgeries to take samples there, but if they are reducing their services to the population for commercial reasons, that is disgraceful.
“It is not putting the patient first, which is what it should be all about.”
A spokeswoman for The Pathology Partnership said: “An unprecedented increase in demand for blood tests, along with staff shortages since late last year, has necessitated the temporary suspension of the blood test services we run at some GP practices in the Bury area.
“We apologise to patients for the inconvenience caused and to those who have had a longer than usual wait for their blood test at West Suffolk Hospital.”
The Pathology Partnership ran a successful recruitment drive last month, and as a result four new phlebotomists will begin work at the hospital soon, bringing the Partnership back up to its full quota of ten staff in the department.
Its spokeswoman said: “We are also considering other changes to improve the situation such as introducing booked appointments and some extended opening hours.
“Our intention is to re-instate the service at GP practices, or elsewhere in Bury if that is more convenient for patients, once our new staff have settled in.”
The Pathology Partnership is contracted by five other NHS trusts in the East of England and employs more than 800 staff.
West Suffolk Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has a 10-year contract with the Partnership, which began in May 2014 and can be reviewed by either party at any time.
Both West Suffolk Hospital and the Pathology Partnership refused to disclose the value of the contract.
A spokesman for the NHS trust said: “We appreciate the service has faced difficulties, which has been caused by an increase in demand during a period of staff shortages.
“The Partnership is taking steps to resolve these issues, and we are pleased that they have now recruited additional staff.
“We will continue to support the Partnership as they look to introduce further improvements for the benefit of patients using the service.”
As the Pathology Partnership only manages blood testing services at 12 of West Suffolk’s 57 GP practices, patients are advised to check with their GP to establish whether or not their practice is still doing blood tests.