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Revealed: the secret NHS waiting list of 15m patients in need of ‘vital treatment’

The Week logo The Week 27/08/2020 Gabriel Power
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More than 15 million patients in need of follow-up appointments are trapped on a “hidden” NHS waiting list, it has been revealed.

According to analysis by The Times, the “official” NHS waiting list of 3.9m people includes only patients who have not yet had their first hospital appointment after being referred by their GP.

“However, the total number who are on hospital books in England and need appointments is not collated centrally,” the paper says. “A new calculation, based on freedom of information requests to NHS trusts... puts the figure at 15.3 million.”

What are the consequences?

The coronavirus pandemic has put the NHS under unprecedented strain, with reports of patients unable to get key appointments during the pandemic and thousands having had NHS care postponed or cancelled.

Recent government figures showed that the lockdown “killed two people for every three that died of the coronavirus” between 23 March and 1 May, with “16,000 dying because they didn't get medical care while 25,000 died of the virus”, the Daily Mail reports.

Bahman Nedjat-Shokouhi, the chief executive of the healthcare company Medefer, which compiled the data, said the official list is “the tip of the iceberg”. Action would be needed “to avoid patients coming to harm”, he added.

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Which treatments have the longest waiting lists?

It is difficult to work out who is facing the longest waiting times, but cancer patients appear to be faring badly. Over the past year there has been a 44% rise in patients waiting for tests to diagnose bowel, stomach, bladder and esophageal cancer, The Telegraph reports.

Meanwhile, only 12.9% of patients diagnosed with cancer after a screening appointment were treated within the target time of two months, says the Daily Mail. “For comparison, the rate was 85.8% last June, and the target is 90%.”

Data from Scotland showed that the number of patients attending heart services with signs of a heart attack fell by more than 50% in the first month of lockdown, and the number diagnosed with a heart attack fell by 40%.

What was the reaction?

Miriam Deakin, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: “It’s certainly a concern that many treatments had to be delayed at the height of the pandemic, and trust leaders are keenly aware of how disruptive and distressing this has been for patients.

“We also know that some patients chose, for a variety of reasons, not to come forward to seek treatment or advice during lockdown in particular, and referrals to trusts have dropped for a number of conditions.”

In order to combat the crisis, NHS England has suggested hospitals could move to a model called “patient-initiated follow-up” in which “people with certain conditions could book a new appointment when they felt they needed it rather than being given a specific date”, The Sun reports.

But doctors have said this could put off people who “do not want to bother” the NHS, the paper adds.

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