Up to 13,000 NHS hospital beds are being used unnecessarily every year because patients are not being discharged quickly enough, a new report claims.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argues that roughly £975 million is being wasted as a result of overlong hospital stays.
In a study, The Future Hospital: The Progressive Case for Change, it says that in addition to improving efficiency, one solution could be to reduce the total number of available hospital beds.
"It may sound counter-intuitive, but a better NHS will be one with fewer hospital beds overall," IPPR associate director Richard Brooks said.
"Hospitals should change for health reasons, not because of short-term cost-cutting. This means some specialist services being provided in fewer places, continued reductions in the average length of hospital stay and more care taking place outside hospitals."
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley claimed the average length of hospital stays fell in the early 1990s quicker than at any time under the present Labour government.
"Hospitals need to have incentives for best practice and there must be investment in community services, especially GPs and district nursing," he said.
"The government talk about care closer to home, but the deficits mean the investment in community services isn't taking place."
Responding to the IPPR report, health secretary Patricia Hewitt insisted that "the NHS is treating more people more quickly than ever before" but conceded that "there are still parts of the system that can and should be far more efficient in speeding up the patient journey".