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Six-month-plus surgery waits triple in four years

Surgeons’ body to regularly monitor six- and nine-month NHS waits

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 02 June 2017

The number of patients waiting longer than six months (26 weeks) for surgical treatment in England has almost tripled in the past four years, according to the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS).

The RCS has today released a new analysis of waiting times data showing that, in March 2017, the number of patients waiting more than 26 weeks for treatment was 126,188, while in March 2013 (the year when six-month waiters were at their lowest level), 45,054 patients were waiting more than six months.

A recent analysis by health think tank the Nuffield Trust said that no political party was promising increases in NHS funding that would meet the growing demands on the health system nor had any clear plan to deal with rising waiting times.

Due to these concerns and because the 18-week target for treatment had been deprioritised by NHS England, the college said it planned to regularly analyse six- and nine-month waits in the NHS.

The data analysed shows that patients awaiting some types of surgery were experiencing particularly strong rises in waits for six or more months between March 2013 and March 2017. These included:

  • ear, nose and throat – a 256% rise
  • urology – 199% rise
  • general surgery – 146% rise
  • oral surgery – 146% rise
  • brain and spinal surgery – 145% rise

In addition, the analysis showed that the number of patients waiting more than nine months (39 weeks) for treatment rose by 209% during the same period. This was a rise from 6,415 patients in March 2013 to 19,838 patients in March 2017.

The NHS can still be fined for patients failing to be treated within 12 months and only a small number of patients now wait longer than this, so the RCS said it expected more patients to be waiting six and nine months for surgery and other treatment over the next few years.

Miss Clare Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “Thanks to the hard work of staff, the NHS is now treating more patients than ever before. Waiting times have come down a lot since 10 years ago and far fewer patients are waiting over a year for treatment.

“However, over the last few years waits for treatment have begun to head in the wrong direction once again. We are now struggling to meet the standards and timeliness of care that the public rightly expect.

“It is unacceptable for such a large number of patients to be waiting over half a year in pain and discomfort for treatment. This is the grim reality of the financial pressures facing the NHS.”

Many of the patients waiting were older and in the more serious cases, such as brain surgery, waiting longer could have an effect on the quality of someone’s life and their eventual recovery from surgery, she added.

“With the 18-week target now being deprioritised, our concern is that we will see a fast deterioration in waiting times with tens of thousands of more patients waiting longer than six months for surgery,” said Miss Marx.

“The Royal College of Surgeons will therefore now regularly monitor this data to assess the extent to which patients are waiting far too long for surgery.”

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “The NHS has cut the number of patients waiting more than a year for treatment by nearly 13,000 over the past five years, and spending on non-urgent surgery is continuing to rise.

“While the Royal College of Surgeons understandably lobbies for more spending on surgeons, in the real world they aren’t the only call on constrained NHS funding, which also has to support extra investment in GP services, modern cancer treatments, and expanded mental health services.”

A spokesman for the Conservative Party said: "This completely fails to acknowledge the hard work of NHS staff in significantly increasing the number of procedures carried out promptly - there were nearly 12 million NHS operations done last year, up by almost 2 million a year since 2010, at the same time as we've dramatically cut the number of people waiting over 52 weeks for treatment." 

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “The Tories’ neglect and underfunding of the NHS has pushed services to the brink. It is outrageous that so many more people are now having to wait six months or more for treatment.”

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