'Shocking’ NHS backlog means dozens of patients wait three years for care

NHS leaders say they are working flat out to reduce the backlog, reports Science Editor Deborah Cohen

Dozens of NHS patients have waited more than three years for hospital care in England, new "shocking" figures show.

At least eight people have been on the NHS waiting list for over four years, with one of these waiting for four-and-a-half years, according to the figures obtained by the PA news agency.

Leading surgeons described the figures as “shocking” and warned that prolonged waits for pre-planned care could lead to “emotional and physical distress”.

Many of these patients are likely to be in pain or discomfort as they wait to find out when they will be seen by a hospital specialist after being referred by their GP.

More than a quarter of those who have been waiting the longest at the 69 trusts which supplied data are waiting for trauma and orthopaedic care – which covers hip and knee replacements.

NHS leaders said they are doing “all they can” to dig into the backlogs, but efforts have been hampered by pressures on the emergency care system, Covid cases and high rates of staff absences on top of severe workforce shortages.

Meanwhile, the number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment has risen to a new record.

A total of 6.2 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of February, NHS England said.

This is up from 6.1 million in January and is the highest number since records began in August 2007.

One patient said spending almost four years on the waiting list had had a huge impact” on her life.

Jo Goulding, 49, a civil engineer and mother-of-two from Warwickshire, has been waiting for several surgeries for years – including waiting for elbow replacements for nearly four years after being referred in summer 2018.

Jo Goulding has been waiting since 2018 for two elbow replacements and since 2019 for a shoulder replacement Credit: Handout/PA

Meanwhile, delays for a hip replacement left her in “agony” and led to more serious problems due to the delay.

The latest official figures from NHS England show that a total of 23,281 people in England were waiting more than two years to start routine hospital treatment at the end of February.

This is down slightly from 23,778 at the end of January but is around nine times the 2,608 people who were waiting longer than two years in April 2021.

To find out how much longer patients had been waiting over the two-year mark, PA sent Freedom of Information requests to 125 non-specialist acute hospital trusts in England.

Trusts were asked how many patients had been waiting for three years in January, how many had been waiting for at least four years, and then the longest period a patient had been waiting for an appointment.

Findings from 69 trusts which responded to the FOI at the time of publication include:

  • More than 91 patients had been waiting for at least three years, with at least eight waiting for over four years.

  • Twenty of the longest waiters required trauma and orthopaedic surgery – among these patients will be those who needed hip and knee replacements.

  • Only eight of the so-called “longest waiters” were waiting for less than 100 weeks.

While there could be important caveats behind the data – such as patients choosing to delay their care for personal reasons or data anomalies – the figures suggest that many patients have been left waiting in pain or have been suffering for years.

Two trusts provided data suggesting single patients had been waiting for more than six years, but then later claimed that the figures were data blunders.

Other trusts with seemingly long waiters at the end of January, according to FOI data supplied by individual trusts, include a patient waiting for 235 weeks for oral surgery at East Suffolk and North Essex; a patient waiting for 206 weeks to see an ear, nose and throat specialist at University Hospitals of Leicester and a patient waiting for 200 weeks at Barts Health NHS Trust in London for surgery.

Barts Health said that since the figures had been published it had treated 75% of the patients waiting for more than two years.

A spokesperson said: “We are targeting patients who have waited too long for planned treatment through our elective recovery programme.

“Since January the backlog of patients waiting two years or more has fallen by 75% and no one will wait that long by June.”

Neill Moloney, managing director of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, added said teams were doing all they could to tackle waiting lists and treat patients as quickly and safely as possible.

He added: "We do not want anyone to be in pain, or waiting, any longer than necessary".

“We are working hard to reduce the backlog at our Trust, including this longest wait in oral and maxillofacial surgery, and we are prioritising patients based on clinical need, in line with national guidance for all NHS trusts", he continued.

PA Graphics

The charity Versus Arthritis called for the NHS to routinely publish the data as it warned that hundreds of thousands of patients are waiting in “increasing pain”.

Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at Versus Arthritis, said: “Hundreds of thousands of people with arthritis are waiting for treatment in increasing pain, their mobility and quality of life getting worse. As longer waits increase the chances of complications, waiting several years for surgery is completely unacceptable."

She added the NHS must start publishing how long people are waiting beyond two years for treatment, and report separately on hip and knee replacement waiting times.

"It is imperative that progress is made at reducing the backlog of people waiting for these operations", she said.

Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “It is shocking that people have been waiting years for planned NHS hospital treatment. Waiting in limbo for a planned hip, hernia or ear operation can cause real emotional and physical distress.

“Unfortunately, we are hearing from our surgeons that Covid-19 continues to disrupt planned NHS care.

“This is due to staff being off sick with or testing positive for the virus. Planned operations are also being cancelled because patients have tested positive for the virus."

Feryal Clark, Labour’s shadow health minister, added waiting lists had already been at a record high before the pandemic, which she said was "thanks to a decade of Tory mismanagement of our NHS."

“The Tories are now hitting working people with unfair tax rises during a cost-of-living crisis so patients are paying more and getting less from our NHS", she went on.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “NHS staff are working flat out to clear the backlogs that have inevitably built up throughout the pandemic … all while we continue to see busy emergency services and high numbers of hospitalised Covid patients.

“The NHS is expecting a busy Easter weekend for its staff across the country and we continue to urge people to come forward for the care they need, using NHS 111 online where possible – the NHS is here for you.”

The government and NHS England have set the ambition to eliminate all waits of more than two years, except when it is the patient’s choice, by July 2022.

More than six million people are currently on the waiting list for NHS hospital care, with the NHS in England is due to publish its latest waiting times data on Thursday.

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