Patients are dying because of a lack of intensive care beds, suggests a BBC survey.
Intensive care is busier than ever
Clinical directors of more than half of the UK's intensive care units were questioned by Radio 4's File On 4 programme.
Fifteen doctors - almost one in 10 of the total who responded - said bed shortages had cost lives.
And 54 (31%) said delays in finding a bed had compromised patients' health. A lack of adequate funding was blamed.
The survey assessed conditions over the last three months of 2003.
During that time, the survey found that 2,068 patients had their intensive care admission delayed for lack of beds.
Dr Saxon Ridley, president of the Intensive Care Society, told the programme: "I think the figures are shocking because the patients who are referred to intensive care need immediate life support and any delay is bad for the patients."
Lack of resources
The survey also found that 85% of respondents did not consider their departments received adequate resources to give all appropriately referred patients an acceptable level of care in today's NHS.
Professor David Bennett, of St George's Hospital in London, said: "I believe there is quite a lot of data to suggest now that we're not getting the optimal treatment.
"The proportion of patients who are at much higher risk does seem to be increasing.
"I suspect this is due to the fact that we are operating on older patients, and we are more ambitious - a greater proportion of sick patients are having major surgery.
"I think there is a feeling that the number of intensive care and high dependency beds has not increased enough to keep up with this increase in the number of patients."
Responding to the survey, Health Secretary John Reid said: "Capacity for critical care is at record levels with 3,128 beds - a 32% increase since January 2000 and the reported number of patients transferred between hospitals for non clinical reasons has fallen by nearly 50% since October 2000.
"But we are not complacent. We recognise there is more to do and we want to see further increases in critical care capacity.
"By developing outreach services and critical care networks across the country we have improved access, experience and outcomes for patients with potential or actual need of critical care."
However, Paul Burstow, for the Liberal Democrats, said an analysis of statistics from the government's latest critical care census shows that, if current trends continue, it will take until 2015 until the number of beds reaches an acceptable level.
Dr Jonathan Fielden, of the British Medical Association's consultants committee, said that Dr Reid's statistics showing an increase in beds included both high dependency and intensive care beds.
"Unfortunately the number of intensive care beds for the most critically ill patients has not risen by nearly as much."
File On 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 24 February at 2000 GMT and repeated on Sunday, 29 February at 1700 GMT.