Hospital Dr News

Patients waiting for planned surgery in NHS tops 4 million proving system is “unsustainable”

The number of patients waiting for planned surgery in an NHS hospital in England has topped 4 million for the first time in a decade, new figures show.

Commentators say it is further evidence that the NHS is unable to maintain standards of service within the current budget.

NHS England admitted that 3.83 million people were on the waiting list for non-urgent hospital care in July, a slight increase on 3.81 million in June.

It said once estimates were factored in for how many patients were waiting at six hospital trusts that did not submit data for the referral to treatment (RTT) scheme, the total would be over 4 million.

This is the highest level since the waiting time target was introduced in August 2007.

Under RTT, patients should wait no longer than 18 weeks after being referred for planned care in hospital, usually an operation, often non-urgent such as a hernia repair or hip or knee replacement.

Richard Murray, Director of Policy at The Kings Fund, said: “The fact that there are now more than 4 million people waiting for treatment is a symbolic moment for the NHS.

“While what matters most for patients is how long they wait, taken together with the fact that the NHS has missed the waiting times standard for over a year, these statistics show once again that it is unrealistic to expect the NHS to continue to be able to offer the same standards of care within the current budget.”

The six trusts that submitted either no data or only partial data to NHS England statisticians were Barts in London, the NHS’s biggest trust, which has five hospitals; Gloucestershire hospitals trust; Northern Devon; the Royal Orthopaedic hospital in north-west London; St George’s trust in south London; and Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS foundation trust.

Labour introduced the 18-week waiting time target in a bid to stop patients waiting unduly long for surgery.

In the first month figures for it were produced, in August 2007, the total number was 4.187 million. It went down rapidly to over 3 million, then fell to over 2 million.

However, it hit 3 million again in April 2014 and began creeping up towards 4 million from mid-2016. It was 3.67 million in January, 3.78 million in April and 3.81 million a month later.

Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The current system is unsustainable: we simply do not have the resources to deliver what the public now expects.

“Performance against these targets shows the system is under pressure and needs transformation and investment, which could include moving more care outside of hospitals.

“In many areas of the country, authentic attempts to create services based on new models of care can be misconstrued as thoughtless cuts.

“Politicians must be willing to engage with the NHS, local government and local communities in helping to reshape local services.”

It follows the controversial decision of the NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, in March to relax the requirement for hospitals to treat at least 92% of patients on the RTT waiting list within 18 weeks.

The Kings Fund’s Murray added: “We should not overlook that the figures contain some positive news on A&E waiting times.

“The NHS seems to have checked the rise in people waiting more than four hours at A&E, and now seems to have a realistic chance of meeting its target of 90 per cent of patients waiting less than four hours by September. The next test for A&E will come – as it always does – in the Winter.”

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