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What NHS delays look like for individuals and is the effect truly known?

It's been widely reported that there are significant NHS delays in the vast majority of departments. However, those delays are appearing at almost every stage and level of NHS treatment as the health system struggles to find the resources to deal with the demand. Even worse, is that the article reports that waiting lists across England have surpassed record highs every month for two years running.

Of course, there has been the Covid-19 pandemic in that time but the issues appear to have been around for quite a while, suggesting that to see Covid-19 as the sole cause would be remiss. Additionally, and arguably more important, there is the concern as to what this delay means for those where 'time is of the essence' when it comes to their diagnosis and treatment.

Working examples of treatment

The examples in the article focus on patients affected by breast cancer, cataracts, hip fractures and heart valve replacements. The examples follow the patients initial steps through to diagnosis and treatment, and there are significant delays seen in almost all areas.  However, the cumulative delay and the effect of the same is unclear.

Taking breast cancer as an example, it's reported that there are around 55,000 new cases each year in the UK and it's an area where speed of treatment is critical. Despite this, the proportion of people being treated within one month has dropped seven percentage points in five years and, even worse, as of September 2022, only 68% of people who received an urgent referral because of breast cancer symptoms were seen by a consultant within two weeks. This figure is down from 93% being seen within that period in September 2017, and well below the operational standard of 93%.

When it's accepted that time is of the essence in respect to this type of cancer and treatment, the situation is clearly untenable. To potentially compound this further, this scenario does not factor in any potential initial delay in being able to be seen by a GP and subsequently being referred to start with. It then also does not raise questions as to what effect that delay has caused, with examples such as:

  • Has it led to patients requiring more extensive surgery with a longer recovery than they otherwise may have had?
  • Has it led to patients requiring otherwise avoidable radiotherapy or chemotherapy?
  • Has it sadly led to some patients receiving a terminal diagnosis?

All of these points are real examples I have seen with clients and is the reason for my concern. Sadly, as can been seen by the other working examples, the delays are affecting nearly every level of treatment and the patients, who are the ones who need that treatment, are left to deal with the aftermath.

NHS England’s position

NHS England has said that “staff… are now facing a tripledemic of Covid, flu and record pressure on emergency services."

Whilst the ongoing problems are clearly troublesome, and the ever present point of funding is always critical, the fact remains that more needs to be done to address the ongoing and widespread issues with waiting lists at every level before the fallout from this becomes too much, if it is not so already.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting patients and families affected by care issues at our dedicated medical negligence section, and oncology care at our dedicated cancer claims section.

“Pressure on emergency services remains high as a result of more than 13,000 beds taken up each day by people who no longer need to be in hospital. But staff have kept their foot on the accelerator to get the backlog down with 18-month waiters down by three-fifths on last year.””