For the first time since its implementation, the NHS’s waiting time target for routine operations in England has been missed.
At the end of December 2015, 91.8% of patients on the waiting list had been waiting less than 18 weeks, which is marginally less than the 92% target put in place in April 2012.
The statistics from NHS England also reveal that at the end of December the number of patients awaiting treatment for routine operations was just under 3.3 million. Of those people, 755 had been waiting for longer than 52 weeks (one year).
An even grimmer picture is painted when you delve into the statistics a little deeper and discover that every single surgical speciality (excluding ophthalmology, and obstetrics and gynaecology) missed the target in December.
The NHS missed its 92% target in: plastic surgery (87%); neurosurgery (87%); general surgery (88.6%); oral (91.2%); ear, nose and throat (90.8%); and cardiothoracic – heart and chest or lungs – (88.7%).
There’s a possibility that the first junior doctors’ strike, which was provisionally scheduled for 1st December 2015, has a significant impact on surgical waiting time across the board. Even though the strike was called off at the eleventh hour, many hospitals had already taken the decision to cancel some routine operations. It is likely that this reality pushed the figure under the 92% target.
Despite missing the target implemented by the government, an NHS spokesperson pointed out (not unreasonably) that the figures were actually rather good.
“Hospitals continue to treat more than nine out of 10 patients within 18 weeks of their referral. More than 1.14 million patients started consultant-led treatment in December and the total number of patients referred in 2015 is up 4.1% on the previous year,” they said.
Nevertheless, NHS waiting times in 2015 increased by over 10% compared with the previous year, adding further weight to the argument for patients to go private.
Clare Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “In surgery, performance has been particularly affected for operations such as hip and knee replacements. Delayed treatment is extremely distressing to all patients. It is welcome that the government has promised extra money in the comprehensive spending review but we also need a long-term sustainable plan to address the increasing numbers of patients needing surgery.”
Marx added that she was “increasingly concerned” by the growing number of patients who are being delayed from leaving hospital to return home or go to alternative care environments. After all, the bottom line is that if hospitals do not have enough free beds, operations may get cancelled.
She said that this placed patients at greater risk of falls or immobility, which can lead to infection. Furthermore, others are deprived of much needed hospital beds.
Marx finished by making a plea to address the issue of social care funding.
“The increasing delays are, it seems, partly due to the consequences of a reduction in spending on social care. We urgently need a political consensus on the funding of social care,” she said.
Although the government has ring fenced the NHS budget and increased spending, the is still a significant gap in terms of what there is and what is needed which is simply going to increase. We would like to see the NHS working closer with the private sector so the NHS has the opportunity to excel in areas it is very good and have a partnership approach with the private sector for other treatments.
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