How can we solve the issue of NHS waiting times?

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waiting times

With the ongoing pandemic, the NHS is facing. One of its biggest challenges. With increased demand and stretched resources, it is unsurprising that Trusts across England are unable to meet their targets. In particular, when it comes to patient waiting times. 

The current situation

Recent results show that in parts of England, the NHS is experiencing its worst recorded performance against these targets. Here are just a few of the statistics:

  • 2018/19 saw the highest proportion of people waiting 18+ weeks for non-urgent essential hospital treatment since 2008;
  • The target for treating cancer patients within 62 days of an urgent GP referral has not been met for over 5 years;
  • And patients waiting less than 18 weeks for elective care treatments dropped from 94% of referrals in 2012/13 to a record 86.7% in 2018/19.

Cancer treatment

Over the past few years, the number of GP referrals for suspected cancer grew significantly, with an increase of 125% from 2010/11 to 2018/19. Targets state that a person should be seen within 14 days of a referral. However, due to the surge in demand, NHS services are finding their capacity stretched exponentially, making achieving this target ever more difficult.

NHS data shows 2018/19 as a record low for cancer patients starting treatment within 62 days, with predictions that this number will continue to fall.

Elective care

For non-emergency, consultant led care, patients have a legal right to begin treatment in under 18 weeks from the date of their initial GP referral. However, an increase in demand is seeing more patients added to waiting lists than the NHS has capacity to treat within these tight timescales, leading to a drop in Trusts successfully meeting performance standards.

To give a clearer picture, in 2010, the number of patients awaiting elective care was around 2.5m. Today, it is closer to 4.5m. 

Public health challenges

The increase in the number of patients being added to waiting lists is in part because of a reported decline in overall public health. More people than ever are requiring medical treatment.. 

Data from the Health Foundation shows an increase in the number of patients with complex needs, such as depression or diabetes. In line with these results, cuts to public health and social care budgets have deepened the struggle to keep the public healthy and out of hospitals.

Current NHS capacity is straining to deal with this surge in consultation demand, while facing key challenges such as lower than average funding growth and workforce shortages, leading to a deficit in the number of qualified GPs and practice nurses.

All of these factors add up to longer waiting times, that are taking a toll on patients and healthcare professionals alike.

What this means for patients

There is a lack of data on the impact of increased waiting times of patients requiring cancer treatment and non-urgent care. However, anecdotal evidence from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey demonstrates an overall dissatisfaction with the current state. International studies on emergency department overcrowding show a risk of greater errors, low patient satisfaction and increased mortality rates.

Reversing the trend

Without intervention, these trends are set to continue, with ever growing waiting lists and lengthy treatment delays for patients. To effectively buck the trend, intervention is needed. Experts agree that sustained investment in resources such as increased workforce, equipment and technology are key. A recent article by The Health Foundation stated that:

‘If the NHS is to achieve its long-term vision of a service that can prevent ill-health, better manage long-term conditions, and treat people earlier, NHS staff will need time, space and skills to make change at all levels of the health and care system.’

Conversely, the work by Tim Briggs in Getting It Right First Time (GIRFT) and studies such as Reducing waiting times in the NHS: Is lack of capacity the problem? suggest that rather than a lack of capacity, it is an ‘insufficient understanding’ of the variation in capacity across services, leading to bottlenecks in some areas. It contends that what is needed is more effective capacity planning across the NHS.

Enhancing patient services through digitisation

To meet the growing challenges of increased demand and limited resources, NHS stakeholders are turning to digital technologies to improve flexibility and better information sharing across Trusts and services.

More and more healthcare services are recognising the importance of offering clearer patient journeys and improving patient flow to provide a better patient experience. To achieve this, better planning tools to optimise and transform care pathways are essential.

Tools such as Rego Care Navigator are supporting health services to better manage referrals. By operationalising pathways, clinicians are able to identify the right treatment path for their patients, saving time and resources. So far, we’ve helped cut down waiting times and manual workload dramatically, resulting in huge savings. A process that previously took 15 minutes, can now be done in 45 seconds. 

To find out more, read some of our latest case studies.

Ultimately, the goal is for a system that is entirely patient focused. By uniting the medical expertise of our practitioners, with dedicated administrative tools that streamline the patient referral process and reduce the administrative burden, we can effectively reduce patient waiting times, improve patient experience and continue to put care first.