Cutting the backlog: how the NHS is reducing operation wait times caused by the pandemic

Report by Health Correspondent Helen Ford

Ten months after an ankle procedure and Glenn Jones says his garden is flourishing. He can finally dig the borders again, as well as pursue his other passion of walking his dogs.

Mr Jones, who lives near Stockton, had suffered severe pain for years. He finally sought help a short time before the pandemic struck. Although his operation was delayed by COVID, he received it between the first and second lockdowns.

Glenn Jones was treated by the orthopaedic team at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust. As well as ankle surgery, it is responsible for getting people back on their feet after knee, hip and spinal problems.

At the start of the pandemic, all elective - or planned - operations were halted in this department with staff deployed to frontline care. 

Mr Jones' operation was carried out in October as keyhole surgery, and with a regional anaesthetic, which meant he didn't require an overnight stay. Performing more procedures as day cases has been crucial for this trust, as it catches up on the backlog that developed early in the pandemic. Plus, while the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton was treating COVID patients, the trust turned to its other main site in Hartlepool as a base for planned surgery. 

Now, orthopaedic surgeon Mr Rajiv Limaye tells me they are 'getting there' in terms of catching up with the backlog, though delays have had significant impacts on some patients.

As a result of those complications that developed during lockdown, Mr Limaye says some patients could take longer to recover.  

According to the most recent data, 15,808 patients were waiting for treatment at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust. Both here and across the North East, the proportion of people waiting for longer periods of time is significantly less than the national average. 

Last month, trusts across the North East and North Cumbria were given a share of £160m to support initiatives to tackle the backlog.

There is an emphasis on sharing expertise across the region. Plans include greater use of technology such as virtual outpatient clinics and extended evening and weekend appointments. The focus is on two areas of care - orthopaedics and ophthalmology, or eye services.

As work to reduce the backlog of operations continues, the NHS is still dealing with COVID-19.

What impact could another spike in cases have on efforts to catch up with planned procedures?

The Medical Director at North Tees and Hartlepool, Dr Deepak Dwarakanath told me he hopes the vaccination programme will prevent a further wave, and - barring a very severe spike -  they are in a 'good position' to continue planned surgery in Hartlepool. 

After a follow-up consultation with his surgeon, Glenn Jones can return home with a spring in his step. The challenge is ensuring that other patients look forward to the same, improved, quality of life.