It is currently estimated that there are six million people in the UK waiting for healthcare or investigations. The waiting list for hospital treatment is not expected to fall for another two years, which places patients at risk of their conditions worsening, and potentially leading to a worse outcome or prognosis, but at least experiencing a longer period of pain and suffering.

Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that he expects the number of people waiting for treatment to increase, as the demand for treatment may increase now that Covid measures are easing and people are beginning to see their GP with conditions that they may have considered non-urgent.

It is estimated that the number of patients being referred for treatment dropped by about 10 million people during the pandemic, which is a worrying figure. This may be due to people not seeking help for conditions that are considered to be non-urgent, including joint replacement surgeries, as well as vision problems.

One of the biggest concerns is the delay in diagnosis of cancer, but also, the delay in receiving treatment. Early detection of cancer is vital to ensure that patients receive the appropriate treatment to enable recovery. Delays in diagnosis or treatment may allow the cancer to spread to other areas of the body, or increase in size, such that treatment options are reduced, and may be more invasive or lengthy. A delay could be the difference between whether a patient can be cured or not.

Health Ministers have been putting plans into place to try and reduce the waiting times for cancer treatment. The following measures have been proposed:

  • A target of 28 days for cancer diagnosis by March 2024. It had been hoped that this measure would have been introduced last year, but this was delayed by the pandemic.
  • A target to start cancer treatment within 62 days of diagnosis, which was the pre-pandemic level, by March 2023.
  • The introduction of 160 community diagnostic and treatment centres, which would be away from main hospitals, to try and improve efficiency as emergency cases at hospitals would be less likely to lead to cancelled treatment or surgery .
  • An investment of £8 billion over the next three years, which will be funded by the rise in National Insurance, to help pay for the new cancer diagnosis facilities.

As well as the proposed measures for cancer patients, the NHS has also outlined plans to try and reduce waiting times across the board, for all patients. These plans include:

  • Follow up appointments will be arranged on a case by case basis, rather than an automatic step, to try and improve availability of appointments.
  • A new online platform, My Planned Care, will be used to inform patients about the expected waiting times and preparations for treatment.
  • A target to eliminate waiting times of over one year by 2025. However, we note that currently over 300,000 people have been waiting for over a year.
  • A target of seeing 92% of all patients within 18 weeks. A target which has not been achieved since 2016.

It is worth noting that the lengthening waiting times is not a new problem, and is certainly not an issue that has only been caused by the Covid pandemic. For instance, in 2018, 68 leading A&E doctors wrote to the Prime Minister to outline concerns of pressures in A&E departments and the staffing crisis, and in 2016, there were 45 temporary closures of A&E units, with one hospital having to cancel all routine operations due to the exceptional pressures at NHS hospitals.

The problem with this large backlog is not going to disappear overnight and it will take time for the targets to be met. We hope that the new proposed measures will help patients to receive the care and treatment that they need quickly, to give them the best chance of a successful outcome.

How can we help?

Have you or a loved one recently been harmed as a result of lengthy delays for diagnosis or treatment? We have a specialist team of clinical negligence solicitors who may be able to help you.

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