NHS England has unveiled a plan to slash waiting times for elective care, allowing patients to get seen and treated more quickly, which is likely to minimise the time they spend absent from work.
The NHS hopes the measures outlined in its plan to tackle the Covid-19 backlog of elective care will give patients greater control over their own health and offer greater choice of where to get treatment if they face a long wait.
Six million people in England are currently waiting for NHS treatment, and only 75% of people needing a diagnostic test receive it within six weeks, compared to 96% pre-pandemic.
By March 2025, the NHS aims to have eliminated waits of longer than a year for elective care. By July 2022 no one will wait longer than two years for elective treatment, it claims, and by April 2023 no one will wait longer than 18 months.
Suspected cancer referrals will also be sped up, with patients who have been referred by their GP either diagnosed or discharged within 28 days. This is expected to affect 75% of referrals by March 2024.
This follows the publication of a 10-year plan to improve cancer care and diagnosis in England last week.
Overall, NHS England wants to deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024/25 than before the pandemic.
The plan also outlines proposals to:
- Open more community diagnostic centres for checks, scans and tests. It plans to have at least 100 in place over the next three years, up from 69 currently
- Expand the use of surgical hubs to carry out planned elective surgeries
- Launch a new online platform – called My Planned Care – to allow patients to see waiting times, tailored information about their planned surgery, and personalised support
- Make outpatient care more personalised.
“Tackling waiting lists quickly and well is a top priority for patients and the public, so it must be central for the NHS,” said Neil Tester, director of The Richmond Group of national health and care charities, which includes Macmillan Cancer Support, the British Lung Foundation and Diabetes UK, among others.
Impact of NHS waits
“An end to the physical and mental pain so many people suffer while waiting for treatment can’t come too soon, so it’s good to see this recovery plan identifying ways to speed up treatment at the same time as supporting and updating people while they wait. Making sure people get the right rehabilitation and aftercare will be vital too.”
Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at charity Versus Arthritis, said: “Long waits for treatment are having a big impact on the physical and mental health of people with arthritis. This recovery plan is urgently needed and marks an important step forward in tackling long waiting times.
“Whilst we welcome efforts to expand surgical capacity, and to give people more information, it will be crucial that people know when they will start to see the benefits.”
The plan also notes the impact the pandemic has had on the wellbeing of NHS staff, and it recognises that this will need to be addressed, along with improving capacity, if its proposals to reduce the elective care backlog are to be successful.
NHS England has treated over 600,000 patients with Covid, and for everyone one patient with the virus staff have also cared for at least two other people with other conditions throughout the pandemic, it claims.
“The annual staff survey indicates that levels of work-related stress have been rising during the pandemic. This is unsustainable,” the report says.
“As well as reducing workload pressures by recruiting and retaining more staff, we also need to ensure health and wellbeing of current staff is prioritised. We will do so by accelerating the adoption of digital solutions and new ways of working that free up time and make the best possible use of staff skills, time and experience.
“Supporting staff is a key part of the recovery of elective services, recognising that staff need to be looked after so they can look after patients.”