Concern as gynaecology waits rise by 60% during Covid-19 pandemic
By Jennifer Fish, a medical negligence lawyer at Irwin Mitchell
A recent study has revealed that in England, more than 570,000 women are waiting for help in relation to gynaecology and reproductive health.
Since the pandemic, waiting lists in this area have rocketed and has left thousands of women undiagnosed and/or untreated for extended periods of time. Many conditions these women are suffering from are progressive and if left untreated, can require more complex or invasive surgery.
NHS England figures indicate that in February 2020, the gynaecology waiting list in England alone stood at 286,008. This rose to 456,938 by January 2022. Prior to the pandemic, around 66 patients were waiting more than a year for treatment, now this figure is almost 25,000, with more than 1,300 being on a waiting list for two years.
Data analysis firm LCP suggests these numbers don't nearly reflect the true scale of the problem; they say more than 400,000 women haven't come forward for help yet. These 'hidden referrals' would suggest that the waiting list in England would stand at more than 850,000.
A pre-existing problem made worse
Unfortunately, this area of medicine has always had a problem surrounding waiting lists. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said patients were "consistently deprioritised and overlooked".
NHS England says hospitals are making progress on dealing with the Covid backlog and average waiting times for elective treatment are coming down. However, this does not address the pre-existing issue of delays which existed before the pandemic began.
RCOG president Dr Edward Morris said he felt helpless not being able to speed up access to care for women and people on his waiting lists and feels as though there was an element of gender bias in the system.
Many women feel unheard and overlooked with concerns about their health often being dismissed as their hormones and emotions, as opposed to an actual underlying health condition.
Dr Morris wants things to be "evened out across the NHS" so that gynaecology is given the same focus as comparable specialities. He said this must start with authorities listening to women, hearing the impact these conditions have on their lives, and designing care around them.
The Royal College asked 830 women on waiting lists about the other impacts on their lives.
Eight out of 10 women say their mental health had suffered, and 77 per cent said their condition was stopping them being able to work or socialise as normal. Conditions like endometriosis and fibroids can affect fertility. Some women are waiting for surgery for these conditions, before they can start fertility treatment. But there is an age limit for IVF on the NHS, and for some women it is too late.
Chetna Mistry told the BBC that she was a "prisoner" to endometriosis, a painful condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows in other places, like the ovaries. She described it as "a whole-body disease which affects you physically and mentally". It has left her infertile, and, at 42, she needs a hysterectomy. Chetna said she was referred to a specialist in June 2020, but 21 months later still does not have a date for surgery.
While it is understood that the COVID-19 has caused a strain on the NHS and the services it provides, the pre-existing problem surrounding delays in women’s health and gynaecology services cannot be ignored. Where delays in diagnosis, and treatment, can have such devastating consequences in terms of fertility, mental health and wellbeing, further work needs to be done to address women’s health and gynaecology services.
Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people affected by healthcare issues at our dedicated medical negligence section.
Gynaecology waiting lists in England have risen by 60% during the pandemic - more sharply than any other specialty.
Across the UK, more than 570,000 women are waiting for help.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said patients were "consistently deprioritised and overlooked".”