Hospital Dr News

Surgeons warn of “tsunami” of cancelled ops unless more NHS capacity

Leading surgeons are calling for hospital beds to be ring-fenced for planned operations, to avoid a ‘tsunami of cancellations’ during the second wave of Covid-19.

It comes as the Royal College of Surgeons of England publish new data showing that the NHS has been unable to meet its target of returning surgery to 80% capacity by the end of September.

The service set an objective in July to return to 90% capacity by the end of October, but RCS England’s findings show efforts to meet the target falling behind.

In a survey of nearly 1,000 surgeons, the College finds that:

  • Only 14% of surgeons can treat the same number of patients in a session as pre-Covid. Most report that where they might have treated four patients in a session, the number would now be only two or three.
  • Nearly half (48%) said they need access to more theatres and facilities to avoid surgical “down time” during deep cleaning, with many citing the need for more ring-fenced surgical beds.
  • Four in ten (39%) respondents in England said that elective activity levels were running at less than 50% of those achieved last year, and nearly half (48%) reported that elective activity levels were between 50% and 80% of those seen in 2019.
  • Two thirds (65%) of respondents in England did not think it was realistic for their Trust to meet the 80% target. Just a quarter (26%) thought it could be achieved.

Planned surgery for everything from knee operations to replacement heart valves was put on hold in March, to free up NHS capacity for COVID patients. 

The NHS asked hospitals to start surgery again beginning in mid-June but professionals cite multiple barriers, including a lack of access to fast-testing for patients, a lack of staff, and a lack of critical care beds.

For the first time, more than two million people in England have been waiting longer than 18 weeks to start hospital treatment, with 83,000 waiting more than a year. 

The RCS report, Protecting surgery through a second wave, calls for guaranteed access to fast Covid tests for surgical staff, to keep the virus off surgical wards.

In addition, they say more ring-fenced “Covid-light” beds are needed, with more nursing staff assigned to surgery, and greater use of the independent sector to expand capacity.

Professor Neil Mortensen, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “Patients waiting for operations cannot be left behind indefinitely by the Covid crisis. Many are in serious pain, with their conditions deteriorating while they are on the list.

“As the virus becomes more prevalent again, there is a real risk of a tsunami of cancelled operations unless surgical beds are funded and protected. That means building up theatre capacity and designating beds exclusively for those who need an operation.”

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