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NHS waiting list reaches record 7 million people

As the NHS waiting list rises to seven million, the highest on record, we examine what this means for the standards of treatment and care across the UK.

New data published by the NHS has shown that the health service is struggling to cope with demand as wait times hit a new all-time high. The data, taken from the months of August and September, are sure to send alarm bells ringing as we approach the winter months.

The biggest revelation to come from the data was that there are now over seven million people in the United Kingdom waiting for a hospital appointment. Approximately three million of these patients have been waiting for over 18 weeks.

These figures are an increase of around three million when comparing the data to the same month two years ago. While much of this sharp increase can be put down to the Coronavirus outbreak, the cost of living crisis has also put a strain on the well-being of millions of people up and down the country.

A&E average wait times have also increased

The bad news didn’t end there. 56.9 percent of A&E patients waited for at least four hours before seeing a medical professional in September, while over 30,000 patients waited for more than 12 hours.

This was an increase of around 4000 when compared to August’s data and is the largest number since records began in August 2010.

These figures also don’t take into account the time that patients wait from the minute they first go through the door, but rather from when they have registered with reception. Therefore, in reality, the numbers will be even more damning than they appear.

Oncology treatment continues to be delayed

One of the most controversial decisions made during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic was to delay key treatment for cancer patients in favour of treating coronavirus patients. While it was an arguably impossible dilemma, the ramifications of these decisions are still being felt.

The NHS as a whole has eight cancer targets but they are currently failing to meet or achieve seven of them. For example, only 72.9% of patients are receiving treatment within two months of diagnosis. Additionally, nearly 10% of patients are waiting for longer than a month to receive radiotherapy – the NHS’ target is for 94% of people to receive this type of treatment within a month of diagnosis when necessary.

A light at the end of the tunnel

Thankfully there were a few positive signs within the data as well. The number of people specifically waiting for 18 months for treatment has fallen over the past 12 months. Over 120,000 people had been waiting for 18 months in August 2021, a figure that has dropped by 60% this year.

Additionally, 255,055 people receive an NHS cancer check on the back of an urgent referral from their GPs in August. This is the highest number of people to receive such a check in a single month since records began.

Professional responses

Dr Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, believes that this newly published data pushes us closer to simply normalising long wait times. She said:

“Without a credible long-term workforce solution in place, we risk normalising long waits and compromising patient care. Staffing shortages are the biggest barrier to cutting waiting lists.

The new secretary of state has promised a long-term workforce plan – this needs to come by the end of 2022 and include how many staff will be needed to keep pace with demand now and in future.”

NHS National Medical Director, Sir Stephen Powis, decided to focus on the positives instead when he stated:

“Despite huge pressures on the NHS this summer, the incredible work of colleagues across the country meant that in August we delivered more potentially lifesaving cancer checks than ever before, and cut 18-month waits by 60 per cent over the last year.”

Dr Powis also urged people to come forward for Covid and flu vaccinations as the NHS prepares for a busy winter.

Final thought

The NHS are clearly still coming out of the other side after the Coronavirus pandemic has put the workforce under immense pressure. The new data adds to an already bleak picture of treatment and care across the UK. While they continue to struggle though, the government must provide them with more support to ensure these wait times start moving in the opposite direction.

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