Hundreds of patients have died waiting to be discharged from hospital since ministers made a landmark pledge to eradicate bed blocking from the NHS.
More than 680 people died in hospital care while waiting to leave between March 2015 and September last year, although the true total is believed to be much higher as some health boards obscured figures to protect patients’ anonymity.
The statistics laid bare the pressure heaped on struggling hospitals by cuts to social care, leaving people who are vulnerable but physically well with nowhere to go due to a shortage of care home beds or carers to visit them in their own homes.
In February 2015, health secretary Shona Robison promised to curb the practice by the end of the year, as extended stays in hospital can also leave elderly patients vulnerable to infection, dependency and depression.
Critics said the “horrifying” figures showed an urgent need for greater investment in social care to help both patients and overstretched hospitals.
But Ms Robison said the Scottish Government’s plans to shift care away from hospitals would help to address the problem.
Labour’s health spokesman Anas Sarwar, who obtained the data through freedom of information requests, said: “These are horrifying figures.
“This shows that delayed discharges are not just detrimental to patient flow and the running of our hospitals, but that they can be seriously dangerous for the patients involved.
“We know how undervalued and over-stretched our NHS staff are, and they should be supported by a proper system to help patients out of hospital as soon as possible.
“Nearly two years ago Shona Robison promised to eradicate delayed discharge out of our NHS – instead the problem is now getting worse and increasing the pressure on our hospitals.”
Bed blocking has become a major problem for the Scottish Government – more than 48,000 hospital bed days were taken up by delayed discharge in October last year, affecting both emergency care and waiting lists for planned operations.
The most common reason for someone to remain in hospital when they are fit to leave is the lack of care home places or social care packages.
Thousands of care home places have been lost in recent years, with the number of registered places falling by 3,685 since the turn of the century to 42,026 last year, according to official figures.
Campaigners warned that patients face “unnecessary anguish” by remaining too long in hospital and called for urgent action to address underfunding of social care.
A spokesperson for the charity Age Scotland said: “The most common reasons given for delayed discharge among older patients involve waiting for a care assessment, or a care package at home or a place in a care home to be arranged.
“This highlights the impacts that continued underfunding of social care have on our NHS, which are likely to intensify as our population ages.
“Though the integration of health and social care may address this problem, that is by no means certain and could take several years to achieve.
“The system is complex and expensive, but it simply must work better or we’ll continue to see unnecessary anguish for people who are sick and their families.”
The Scottish Government has promised £30 million per year to help the new health and social care partnerships to tackle bed blocking, said Ms Robison.
She added: “One unnecessary delay is one too many and I’ve made clear my ambition and expectation that our new integrated health and social care partnerships will successfully address this.
“We will continue to work with the partnerships that face the most significant challenges to ensure the level of delayed discharges reduce and that people can live out their lives in their own homes or similar homely setting.”