NHS crisis: Routine treatments with the longest waiting lists revealed

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People take part in a protest outside Parliament in central London, calling on the government to tackle NHS waiting lists. Picture date: Saturday September 4, 2021.
People take part in a protest outside Parliament in central London, calling on the government to tackle the record NHS waiting lists (PA Images)

With the number of people on NHS waiting lists at a record high, patients requiring certain types of treatment are facing particularly gruelling backlogs.

Some 5.6 million people were waiting to start routine hospital treatment at the end of July, according to the latest figures from NHS England. Of those, 1,779,366 were waiting between 18 weeks and a year, and 293,102 were waiting for over a year.

The crisis has led Boris Johnson to announce one of the most radical tax plans in recent years, as the government tries to unpick the damage to the health service wrought by the COVID pandemic.

While waiting lists were already on the rise before coronavirus, the number of people waiting for treatment rocketed as health services were overwhelmed with COVID patients and non-essential care was halted.

The PM announced an extra £10 billion a year in funding for health and social care this week, paid for by a 1.25 percentage point increase in national insurance. 

Johnson said the money would fund “the biggest catch-up programme in the history of the NHS”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on the long-awaited plan to fix the broken social care system. Picture date: Tuesday September 7, 2021.
Boris Johnson appears at a media briefing in Downing Street, where he outlined his plan to tackle the health and social care crisis. (PA Images)

Yahoo News UK has analysed the figures to see which routine treatments are struggling the most, uncovering parts of the country where some patients routinely have to wait for more than a year. 

The figures – which don't include urgent care such as most cancer treatments – reveal that, when broken down by treatment type, patients referred for oral surgery face the longest average wait, with a median waiting time of 14.1 weeks. In contrast, patients referred for elderly medicine services were treated within 5.9 weeks on average.

Patients needing ear, nose and throat treatment waited an average of 14 weeks, and patients referred for neurosurgical treatment were seen within 13.3 weeks on average. 

Median waiting times for NHS treatment, by treatment type (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)
Median waiting times for NHS treatment, by treatment type (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)

For some treatments, patients are considerably more likely to have to wait longer than the 18-week maximum limit set by the NHS.

Almost half of ear, nose and throat patients are waiting more than 18 weeks, with 41.2% of the patients currently on the list waiting longer than the maximum target.

Some 41.1% of oral surgery patients and 39.2% of trauma and orthopaedic surgery patients were waiting more than 18 weeks in July. Only 9.5% of elderly medicine patients were waiting longer than the 18-week limit, according to the latest figures.  

The proportion of patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)
The proportion of patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)

In some hospitals, the backlogs for certain services are particularly troubling. Yahoo News UK has analysed NHS England data to find the locations of services with the longest average waiting time.

Two services had median waiting lists of more than a year.

Patients needing rheumatology treatment at the University Hospitals of North Midlands Trust face the worst wait, with an average of 59 weeks. For oral surgery at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust the average wait was 56.5 weeks.

The longest NHS waiting lists (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)
The longest NHS waiting lists (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)

NHS in crisis

The figures come as the NHS faces the vast challenge of clearing the record backlog, worsened by the COVID pandemic.

Ministers and experts have warned that waiting lists will get worse before they get better, as people come forward for treatment put off during lockdown. 

A total of 5.6 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of July, the highest number since records began in August 2007.

Total number of people on NHS waiting lists in England (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)
Total number of people on NHS waiting lists in England (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)

Some progress has been made in tackling the number of people waiting more than a year.

The number of those waiting more than 52 weeks to start treatment stood at 293,102 in July 2021, down from 304,803 in the previous month, but more than three times the level a year earlier.

People waiting longer than the maximum 18-week target to start treatment (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)
People waiting longer than the maximum 18-week target to start treatment (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)

Health secretary Sajid Javid warned this week that the number of people on waiting lists will continue to increase before efforts to dislodge the backlog come into effect.

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at health think tank The King’s Fund, said: “Despite the best efforts of NHS staff, waiting lists for routine NHS care have swollen to levels last seen 15 years ago.

“There are over 5.6 million people waiting for care already, often in pain and dealing with the uncertainty of when they will be treated.

“All NHS services are affected, with primary care, hospital care and mental health services seeing the demand for care rise as the immediate threat of Covid-19 recedes.

“Even before COVID-19, waiting lists for treatment had substantially worsened."

Boris Johnson finally revealed long-awaiting plans to tackle bulging waiting lists this week, revealing a £36 billion boost over over three years.

The PM's 1.25 percentage point national insurance increase breaches the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 election.

Under the plans, the NHS will get the bulk of the £36 billion raised in the first three years – with £5.4 billion for social care in England.

However, ministers have been unable to guarantee that will be enough to clear the backlog in the NHS.

Labour leader Keir Starmer criticised the policy for targeting workers rather than wealthy homeowners, and questioned whether it would be enough to clear the backlog by the end of the current parliament. 

Johnson replied: “We at least have a plan to fix the backlogs and we at least understand that the only way to fix the long-term underlying problems in the NHS, the problem of delayed discharges, is to fix the crisis in social care as well which Labour failed to address for decades and we’re going on ahead and doing it.”

Watch: Number of people waiting for hospital treatment hits record high – again

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