Hospitals are carrying out 12% fewer operations and treatments than they were before the Covid-19 outbreak. The rise in waiting lists however, according to a BBC analysis is as a result of the inability of hospitals to get back to full strength rather than an increase in demand.
Surgeons have said it was really frustrating as operating theatres are not being used as a result of shortage of beds and staff.
It is now a normal occurrence to cancel surgery at the last minute because of unavailability of staff or intensive care and ward beds are full with other patients.
Vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Tim Mitchell said, “It’s tough on patients and tough on staff who want to get on and treat patients. Without treatment, the health of patients can deteriorate. Not only do we need to get back to where we were before the pandemic, we need to do more if we are going to tackle the backlog.”
Data from NHS England showed that an average of nearly 257,500 inpatient treatments, including hip and knee replacements were performed each month in the past year which is lower than the year before the pandemic.
The backlog is growing because services are struggling to return to full strength as the number of new referrals for treatment has not actually exceeded its average before the start of the pandemic.
Many in the health service have expressed surprise at this because it was expected that there would be a high increase in the demand for services because people did not come forward in the heat of the pandemic.
Mr Mitchell said it was likely that there is a lot of hidden demand out there with people either still staying away not being able to make it to the waiting lists as a result of pressure on GP services.
Marcus Mansukhani has been waiting for a hernia operation since late 2018 and says that waiting for the operation is affecting his physical and mental health.
Initially, the surgery was put off because he had high blood pressure but then the treatment was delayed even further when the pandemic hit.
Two months ago, he had to have his gallbladder removed. At the moment, his hernia has grown to 4.7in (12cm) in size. It has become so big that he is struggling to walk
Mr Mansukhani, 47, from Suffolk, said: “It is very frustrating. I’m not walking as much as I would like because it is painful. And it is noticeable when I go out in public, so I’ve been keeping myself to myself.
“Something like this really affects both your physical and mental health.”
Mr Mitchell said there are several factors which have prevented hospitals from running at full capacity. Some of the reasons included continued disruption by Covid which was not just causing increased illness among staff but was also causing more beds to be taken up by sick patients; delays in freeing up beds because patients cannot be discharged since they cannot access the needed care in the community.
The NHS in England has set a target of carrying out 30% more treatments by 2024. In order to help, a network of community diagnostic centres and surgical hubs are being established away from the hospital.
Mr Mitchell has however warned that there was still a lack of staff in places to make the most of this initiative. He particularly mentioned problems with theatre nurses and anaesthetists which he said was a UK-wide issue, pointing out that the situation in Wales and Northern Ireland was particularly bad.
Ministers have also warned it may be spring 2024 before the backlog starts to fall in England.
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