Two in five inpatients in England report health decline while on NHS waiting list

<span>Photograph: Jeff Moore/PA</span>
Photograph: Jeff Moore/PA

Two in five people admitted to hospital for planned care in England last year had their health worsen while they were on the NHS waiting list, a major survey reveals.

The finding emerged in a new report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) that also found that growing numbers of patients think there are too few nurses on duty to care for them.

For the first time the CQC’s annual survey of inpatients’ experiences of being in hospital asked the sample of 63,000 people if their health had changed while they were waiting to be admitted.

About half (51%) said it had stayed the same, but 24% thought that “it got a bit worse” and another 17% reported that “it got much worse”. Another 8% said their health improved.

“After 13 years of Conservative rule, NHS waiting times are through the roof. Patients are being left for months or even years, and their conditions are worsening as a result,” said Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary. “This is bad for their health, and it increases the overall bill for their care to the taxpayer.”

Louise Ansari, the chief executive of the patient advocacy group Healthwatch England, said the widespread reported deterioration in the health of those forced to wait for operations such as joint replacements, heart surgery and cataract removals “calls for urgent attention from healthcare leaders to ensure people get timely care when they need it”.

Long waits were “a challenging part of people’s experience of care”, the CQC said. Dr Sean O’Kelly, the watchdog’s chief inspector of hospitals, blamed them on the NHS’s enormous backlog of patients awaiting elective care, which stands at a record 7.6m

Delays accessing NHS care are also driving an ongoing rise in the number of people paying for private medical care. A record number of patients – 227,000 – went private in the first three months of 2023, according to the Private Healthcare Information Network’s latest quarterly figures. Of those, 156,000 used private medical insurance – the most ever – and the other 71,000 used their own funds.

The CQC also found that:

  • 39% of patients would like to have been admitted sooner.

  • Almost one in five (18%) felt they waited “far too long” to get a bed once they had been admitted – a big rise on the 8% who said that in 2020.

  • Only 52% thought there were always enough nurses on duty.

  • Discharge was often unsatisfactory for patients, with only 48% given enough notice about when they would leave and only 45% told how their post-hospital care would happen.

  • Hospital care was less good than before Covid struck in 2020, patients said.

Overall people aged 16-50, or admitted as an emergency or who were frail had a poorer experience in hospital, as did people with dementia. However, older people, those who had been admitted for planned care and those who stayed for only one night had a much more positive experience, the CQC found.

More positively, 81% of patients said they “always” had confidence and trust in the doctors treating them and 82% felt they were “always” afforded dignity and respect.