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Take a look at a selection of our recent media coverage:

NHS England issues post-strike priorities as reality of reducing elective backlog becomes clearer

16th January 2024

NHS trusts and integrated care boards must work to reduce elective long-waits and meet cancer 62-day backlog targets following this month’s strike action, NHS England has said.

In a letter addressed to chief executives and directors, NHS England outlined its expectations following the disruption caused by the junior doctors’ strike held in January.

It said that trusts will likely face a combination of pressures including seasonal Covid and flu presentations, cold weather-related presentations, staff sickness and the need to reschedule patients’ cancelled appointments.

NHS England urged trusts to ‘continue to prioritise the safety of patients’, including urgent planned surgery and other treatment for time-sensitive conditions, particularly fast progressing cancers.

It said the priorities from January to March remain for:

  • All systems to deliver at least 76% four-hour performance and Category 2 ambulance response times as committed to in quarter four in the November planning round, supported by continued delivery of actions identified as part of the Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan
  • All systems and providers to deliver their cancer 62-day backlog reduction targets as well as achievement of the 75% faster diagnosis standard by March 2024
  • All systems to continue to reduce elective long-waits in line with the ambitions in the Elective Recovery Plan and activity levels agreed in the most recent planning exercise.

The latest round of junior doctor strikes lasted for 144 hours from 7am on 3 January to 7am on 9 January as part of their ongoing salary dispute.

NHS data showed that more than 113,700 inpatient and outpatient appointments due to be held during the strike had to be rescheduled.

Since strikes began, the cumulative total of acute inpatient and outpatient appointments rescheduled is now 1,333,221, according to NHS England.

Reducing backlog and building resilience

As these latest NHS priorities were shared, a new study suggested that the NHS must treat 10% more non-urgent hospital cases a month to reverse the increasing waiting list for elective care.

Even if system capacity were to increase by 30% – as NHS England’s target sets out – it would still take ‘several years’ to clear the backlog, researchers from Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde said.

Published in The Lancet, the research paper estimated there were 10.2 million fewer referrals made to elective care between the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and October 2022.

It also highlighted that the NHS waiting list for elective treatment increased between January 2012 and 2020 suggesting ‘a gradual service decline’ even before the pandemic.

The researchers concluded that even if the 30% increase in capacity is achieved during the next three years, ‘several years (beyond the end of 2025) will be needed for the backlog to clear.’

They added: ’Our study emphasises the need to improve healthcare system resilience to ensure that the effects of any future emergencies on the provision of routine care are minimised.’

The most recent NHS England data revealed that the Covid-19 backlog has fallen for two months in a row, dropping by 95,000 individual pathways from 7.7 million in October to 7.6 million in November.

NHS England said this was due to NHS staff delivering more than 1.63 million treatments in November – the highest monthly activity on record and around 150,000 more than the same month before the pandemic.

NHS launches out-of-area hospital ‘matching’ platform to tackle record waiting lists

11th August 2023

Patients who need treatment will be quickly allocated to a hospital with sufficient capacity via a newly launched ‘matching’ platform in order to help bring down elective backlogs, NHS England has announced.

The tool will allow NHS staff to view and add available surgery slots in hospitals across the country, including in the independent sector.

According to NHS England, clinical teams will be required to upload details of patients willing to travel who are on their waiting list, with other NHS providers able to match people up to treatment. Options are then passed to the patient to choose from.

The tool was originally introduced for patients needing a hospital admission but has now been expanded to include cancer, diagnostic checks, and outpatient appointments.

NHS England said the system is mainly to be used for patients who have been waiting the longest, and views it as a key tool in eliminating all 65-week waits by April 2024.

Gynaecology, colorectal, trauma and orthopaedics have benefitted most from the mutual aid so far, NHS England said.

NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, commented: ‘Despite significant pressure on services, NHS staff have already made incredible progress against our elective recovery plan, and this smart new tool will help us to continue to reduce long waits for patients.

‘It shows, once again, the benefits of having a national health service – NHS staff can now work even more closely with other hospitals across the country to identify capacity and conveniently match patients to available treatment and appointment slots.’

Waiting lists hit record levels

This comes as NHS England announced a record 7.57 million people are now waiting for NHS hospital treatment – three million higher than it was before the pandemic.

More than 383,000 people had been waiting more than 52 weeks to start routine treatment by the end of June, which had dropped slightly from 385,000 a month earlier.

And around 7,170 people were waiting more than 18 months at the end of June, compared to 11,400 in May. This is despite NHS England’s pledge to eliminate all 18-month waits by April 2024.

What’s more, NHS emergency departments experienced their second busiest ever July, with 2.1 million attendances. The summer is on track to be the busiest on record.

The NHS also experienced another record month for cancer checks with over 261,000 urgent referrals in June, and a near-record number of people starting treatment for cancer at 29,479.

Commenting on the overall NHS figures, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said: ‘A perfect storm of squeezed funding in the NHS, the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, workforce shortages and now industrial action has pushed the waiting list to its highest point at 7.57 million.

‘This will ring alarm bells for trust leaders up and down the country as mounting care backlogs inevitably pile more pressure onto an already overstretched NHS. Amid ongoing strikes, this is an extremely busy summer for A&E while ambulance services also face very high demand and more urgent calls.’

Assistant director of policy at the Health Foundation Tim Gardner added: ‘Industrial action has hampered efforts to address the backlog, but a lack of staff and capacity meant the waiting list was increasing long before the pandemic and had reached 7.2 million before the first strike towards the end of last year.’

He continued: ‘While ministers have been quick to blame strikes for the lack of progress, the roots of this lie in political failures to tackle rising pressures over the last decade. There are no quick fixes – ensuring people get the care they need at the time they need it hinges on the Government acting to address the underlying problems facing the health service, which includes historic under-investment in equipment and buildings, as well as delivering the long-term workforce plan to address the significant staff shortages.’

Experts say independent sector has ‘limited impact’ on clearing NHS backlog

22nd May 2023

Increased use of the independent sector to drive down waiting times is having a ‘limited impact’ on NHS backlogs, a major think tank has said.

A report published by the Health Foundation concluded that greater use of the independent sector providers (ISPs) is ‘no substitute’ for addressing wider issues such as staff shortages, social care and underfunding.

Analysis by the foundation examined the use of ISPs in the delivery of NHS-funded ophthalmic and orthopaedic care – two areas where the independent sector’s share of care has grown most.

But it found in ophthalmology, the NHS was treating patients more quickly than the independent sector in November last year.

By comparison, in 2018, there was almost no difference with approximately 75% of patients waiting for ophthalmic treatments in England being treated within three months by the NHS or an ISP.

Charles Tallack, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: ‘While it has an important role to play, the independent sector is not a panacea for bringing down waiting lists, despite it being at the heart of the elective recovery plan.’

Increasing waiting times

The waiting list for planned hospital care – which stood at 7.21 million in January – has grown by 58% since just before the start of the pandemic. Children waiting for consultant-led care is now at all-time high.

To help expand capacity and address this backlog the NHS has been looking to ISPs to treat more NHS patients.

NHS performance bounced back in 2021 and 2022, but the independent sector has seen that figure drop to below 60% in 2022.

For orthopaedic care, waiting times have increased across both the NHS and ISPs since 2018, though this has been more pronounced for ISPs, resulting in patients facing similar waits regardless of whether they are being treated by the NHS or an ISP.

The report suggests that while ISPs might be supporting activity levels, much like NHS providers, they are struggling to deliver care quickly and are unlikely to help bring down overall waiting lists.

Mr Tallack added: ‘To truly increase activity and bring down waiting lists, the government must address the major problems facing the NHS – from the lack of an adequate workforce plan to historic under-investment, as well as pressures in social care.’

The study also raised questions about inequalities in access to independent-sector-delivered NHS care. In ophthalmology, the analysis found that post-pandemic, overall treatment volumes in the most deprived areas were still 1% lower than before the pandemic, while in the richest areas they were 5% higher.

And in both specialities, white patients were consistently more likely to receive NHS-funded care delivered by the independent sector than patients from other ethnic groups.

A version of this story was originally published by our sister publication Pulse.

Children waiting for consultant-led care at all-time high

15th May 2023

The number of children waiting for NHS hospital appointments has reached an all time high, the latest NHS figures show.

There are currently 403,955 children waiting for consultant-led care, of which 18,000 have been waiting for more than a year for essential treatment, the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has warned.

The College notes that while there has been considerable progress made in shrinking the adult backlog, the children’s list ‘continues to rise at an unprecedented rate’, with ‘children not being prioritised’.

Long waits for children are of particular concern, given many treatments and interventions must be administered within specific age or developmental stages, a statement from the College said. And the data does not capture the full scale of the problem, it added, with hidden and growing waiting times for community care.

The RCPCH has called on the Government to set aside ringfenced funding for children’s service recovery at all community, elective, and urgent care levels, as well as publishing a fully-costed NHS workforce plan immediately.

‘Stuck in limbo’

The figures come as NHS England said the number of patients waiting more than 18 months fell to just 10,737 by April – down by more than 90% from 124,911 in September 2021 and by more than four-fifths since the start of January when there were 54,882.

RCPCH president Dr Camilla Kingdon said: ‘It is a national scandal that over 400,000 children are stuck in limbo on a list, waiting for treatment.

‘These children could fill Wembley stadium four times over. NHS England has a zero-tolerance policy for 52-week waits, so it is deeply concerning that these targets are being missed.

‘The clear regional variation in size of waiting lists also means that this is an equity issue for children and their families. Child health teams are working tirelessly to address the growing backlogs, but without proper support, their efforts are unable to make a meaningful dent in the problem.’ 

Calls for Government support

RCPCH officer for health services, Dr Ronny Cheung added: ‘It’s clear now that the voices of children are not being heard. It seems that the focus in the lead up to the next election is primarily on voting-aged adult issues.

‘Lengthy waits are unacceptable for any patient but for children and young people the waits can be catastrophic, as many treatments need to be given by a specific age or developmental stage.

‘In recent months we’ve heard about children missing school, quitting sports, and missing out on the important aspects of a healthy, happy childhood. This is not a trivial matter.’

Meanwhile, statistics published by NHS England showed that the overall elective waiting list has grown to a record high, with 7.3 million people now waiting for treatment.

A version of this story was originally published by our sister publication Pulse.