Twenty times more people than before the pandemic are waiting more than six weeks to have a heart scan in England, a charity has found, as the NHS continues in its attempts to tackle the backlog in care.
The British Heart Foundation said that 64,962 people had waited more than six weeks for an echocardiogram at the end of September 2021, compared with just 3,238 people who had waited this long at the end of February 2020.
Forty-four per cent of people on the waiting list for an echocardiogram had been waiting for longer than six weeks, which the charity suggested was putting lives at risk. In some English regions, this proportion rose to 55%.
Although the NHS has been working hard to tackle the backlog in heart and other tests, which grew when routine tests and procedures were put on hold as the health service focused on treating patients with Covid-19, the BHF found that it was carrying out around 10,000 fewer heart scans each month than before the pandemic.
The charity has urged the government to address the backlog of heart scans by looking at how it can alleviate staff shortages in cardiology and by outlining how the recently-announced diagnostic centres could be used to help diagnose heart conditions.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “Waiting lists for heart treatments were too long even before the pandemic began, and they are now rising to record levels.
“Yet this is only half the story. Without an echocardiogram, doctors can’t see how well the heart is working and if someone needs potentially life-saving treatment for heart disease.
“This matters because the long delays we now see for heart imaging tests create a domino effect of disruption to heart care and treatment that ultimately puts lives at risk. This is all the more tragic when effective heart treatments exist.”
One patient told the charity that she had been waiting almost two years for an echocardiogram to tell if she needed surgery to repair or replace her valve.
“I feel that heart patients have been a little bit neglected during all this. For many people lockdown is over, and life is returning to some normality. But for those like me with a heart condition that needs monitoring, it has left us worried, with uncertainty over what happens next,” she said.
It is not just heart patients who have experienced a delay in care: patients waiting to start routine hospital treatment at the end of September 2021 reached a record of 5.8 million, NHS figures showed, the highest number since NHS England records began in August 2007.
Some 300,566 patients had been waiting more than 52 week, up from 292,138 in August, and 12,491 people were waiting more than two years, up from 9,754 at the end of August.
The figures also showed long waiting lists for diagnostic tests: 369,207 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for key diagnostic test – including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy.
A poll for the NHS Confederation, a body representing all organisations providing NHS services, found health leaders believe the service has reached “tipping point”, with nearly nine in 10 saying the demands on their organisation are unsustainable.