BLOOD supplies to Scottish hospitals are to be cut back after it was discovered that they throw away 19,000 donated units a year.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service has issued new restrictions to prevent the waste, amid fears that it will discourage donors from giving blood.
Despite regular shortages, which often spark urgent demands for emergency donations, almost one in 10 of the 230,000 units collected from donors last year were destroyed because they had passed their expiry date. The SNBTS says this was because hospitals stockpile too much blood in case they need it for major emergencies.
Yesterday, Professor Ian Franklin, national medical and scientific director of the SNBTS, said it was reviewing the amount of blood being sent out to hospitals amid plummeting donor numbers and a decrease in the number of transfusions.
Under the Blood Express initiative, the SNBTS will hold on to more supplies at its central blood banks in hospitals in Inverness, Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It will limit supplies to Scotland's remaining hospitals. In emergencies, supplies can be sent from the nearest blood bank. Medical centres in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland will be exempt from the scheme because they are so remote.
But the revelation that thousands of units of blood have been thrown away has angered patients' groups and opposition politicians, following numerous urgent pleas for donations from the service.
Franklin said: "We want to make maximum use of the donor's gift. Although we can collect enough blood, it is getting harder and harder to do it. We always worry about compassion fatigue.
"The Blood Express programme is educating nurses and doctors about the appropriate use of blood and maximising the delivery of blood to patients, while minimising stockpiles, increasing efficiency and making sure stock does not go out of date.
"We do not want stock levels to be so low that there is no contingency there should they need it. We do get occasions where one patient needs up to 60 units of blood. That will stretch things and we will have to move stocks around, so we do need a comfort zone."
Donor numbers are steadily declining, largely due to safety concerns. A huge factor has been the removal of around 10,000 donors from the service's database amid concerns they could spread vCJD.
The move followed a ruling two years ago which banned donating by patients who have received blood transfusions since the beginning of 1980. This is the time after which it is believed people might first have been exposed to the disease.
Only 180,000 people, or 5.1% of the population, give blood, compared with about 208,000 six years ago. Around 80,000 patients in Scotland receive blood transfusions every year.
But demand has dropped as medical practices have changed, with doctors tending to limit transfusions to life-or-death situations.
The SNBTS has already embarked upon an initiative to reduce blood transfusions. The Effective Use of Blood Programme reduces 'pick-me-up' transfusions where patients are given blood to help them recover after operations, and ease the effects of debilitating conditions, including ulcers.
But the new move has been met with alarm by critics.
Margaret Watt, chair of the Scotland Patients' Association said: "I do not agree that there should be less stockpiles of blood. What happens if there is a major emergency? Patients will have to lie there and wait for the blood to come in.
"I also think the SNBTS has to be very careful because if donors think their blood is being wasted they might not be comfortable giving it. This is going to put people off."
SNP health spokeswoman Shona Robison urged caution.
She said: "This has to be done very carefully indeed. I am concerned if hospitals have been stockpiling blood that has then been wasted. We must ensure the message to the public is that they do need to give blood. Supplies are crucial. If the system is to be changed we need a safety guarantee."
However John Smith, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, said the move was necessary given the shortage of blood.
He said: "In an ideal world we would like to have sufficient donors to provide blood requirements for safe clinical practice. But in the current circumstances this system is as good as any."