Waiting lists in Wales have 'very long way to go' to return to 'acceptable level', says doctor

New data shows that the waiting list for referral to treatment in Wales has seen another small decrease. Credit: PA Images

Waiting lists in Wales still have a "very long way to go", despite seeing a "very small fall" for the third consecutive month, a top doctor has said.

New data published today (21 March) shows that the waiting list for referral to treatment in Wales has seen another small decrease, with the figure for January 2024 sitting at just over 755,400, down from over 756,300 in December 2023.

Responding to the figures, Professor Jon Barry, Director in Wales at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “Waiting lists have seen a very small fall for the third consecutive month. However, there’s a very long way to go to get lists back to an acceptable level – especially at the current rate.

“We are particularly concerned about patients waiting more than one and even two years for treatment. They will be suffering huge disruption to their lives and there is a risk that their condition will deteriorate while they wait.

“The government in Wales needs to up the pace of investment in both staff, and in surgical hubs, to see waiting lists improve at the rate that is needed.”

The patient pathway data released by Stats Wales covers the time a patient waits from their referral to hospital for treatment.

The data includes time spent waiting for any hospital appointments, tests, surgery, scans, or other procedures.

It shows that there were just over 23,400 pathways waiting more than two years. There were also around 138,000 waiting more than one year in January 2024.

The longest waits are for trauma and orthopaedic treatment, general surgery, Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT), and urology.

However, the proportion waiting less than 26 weeks decreased and the number waiting longer than 36 weeks increased.

Ear, Nose and Throat are among the highest waiting lists across NHS Wales.

Responding to the Ear, Nose and Throat waiting lists, Specsavers said the lack of accessible audiology services is causing a financial strain on the Welsh economy.

Angharad Morris, Head of clinical engagement for Specsavers Audiology said "527,000 people in Wales (around 1 in 6) are either deaf or have hearing loss. Yet, NHS waiting lists for routine appointments such as hearing check-ups and ear wax removal are hitting all-time highs in Wales with 10,000 people waiting several months or longer to be seen."

The company is calling on the Welsh Government to commission these services so people with hearing issues can receive timely support in their local high street.

The data also showed that average response times to immediately life-threatening (red) calls were 10 seconds faster when compared to the previous month, with 80% receiving a response in 15 minutes.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said this is a "remarkable achievement by our hard-working NHS staff considering it included a period of industrial action as well as the usual pressures on the system seen in January.

"The proportion of red calls was the joint third highest on record. We expect to see health boards improve ambulance patient handover performance as a priority to support more timely ambulance responses.

“The average time patients waited for triage and then to be assessed by a clinician in emergency departments was 18 and 58 minutes respectively.

“We have challenged health boards to make improvements on these and other key measures as part of our new Quality Statement for Care in Emergency Departments, published last week."

They added: “It is disappointing to see one-year waits for a first outpatient appointment increase again however.

“February also saw an increase in the total number of pathways of care discharge delays compared to the previous month, which reflects the difficulties of the impacts of winter pressures on both our health and social care sectors. Although the total for Wales has increased we have also seen some encouraging improvements within some regions in Wales.

“There remains much more to do, but we are encouraged by the direction in which the major statistics are trending.”

Russell George MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Health Minister said: “Tackling these extremely concerning figures should be at the very top of Vaughan Gething’s to-do list.

“For far too long the Labour Welsh Government has put precious time, energy and resources into vanity projects and constitutional distractions when they should’ve had a laser-like focus on improving the health service for Welsh patients and staff alike.

“The new First Minister needs to accept our offer of votes to reprioritise funding away from Labour vanity projects, like creating 36 more politicians, to fully resource our Welsh NHS with the entire consequential uplift received for health.”

Nesta Lloyd-Jones, assistant director of the Welsh NHS Confederation, said: “There are some indications of progress in planned care, with the overall number of patient pathways coming down slightly in January, and those waiting more than two years continues to fall month on month, showing the concerted effort by health boards to target the longest waiters.

“However, the proportion waiting less than 26 weeks decreased and the number waiting longer than 36 weeks increased. This in no way reflects the planning and hard work of staff, as they grappled with the height of winter pressures and disruptive industrial action."

She continued: “It’s vital Wales’ new First Minister and the Minister for Health and Social Services engage with health trade unions to prevent further industrial action in the NHS. Industrial action is and will continue to have a huge impact on service delivery, undoing much of the good work that has been done to recover performance following the pandemic.

“Resolving trade union disputes and investing in social care, workforce, capital and digital are the NHS’s only chance to free up patient flow in hospitals and have the capacity to reduce both urgent & emergency care and planned care waiting times, ultimately improving outcomes for patients. In the longer term, addressing inequalities and the wider determinants of health will be our only hope of sustainable health and care services and supporting a healthier population.”

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