As the NHS waiting lists in England hit a record level of 7 million in September, the BBC reports that part of the problem is not increased patient demand as many had assumed, but the fact that many hospitals are struggling to return to pre-pandemic work rates. There are on average 12% fewer operations being carried out post-pandemic.
The reasons given for the lower turnovers are that Covid is still causing some disruption, both with staff being off sick, and patients taking up extra beds. There is also a more widespread staff shortage, caused by greater numbers leaving the workforce than have been recruited in recent years.
Furthermore, some beds are being taken up by patients who have been assessed as fit for discharge, but a shortage of social care services means that there are no suitable arrangements in place for them when they leave hospital.
Tim Mitchell, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, told the BBC: "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."
There are various measures in place to try and ease the pressure on the NHS. These include the option for patients to travel outside their local area for operations, and temporary operating theatres being installed in hospital carparks.
An NHS spokeswoman pointed out that the two-year waiting list has been reduced to almost nothing since the start of the year, and the 18-month waiting list was also considerably shortened.
She added: "There is now considerable investment in surgical hubs and diagnostic centres that will help to protect elective treatments from wider pressures, especially in future years, and increasing use of technology like robotic surgery and dedicated day case units, which help increase the amount of elective procedures that can be carried out."
Meanwhile, leading cancer charities have criticised the delays in appointments for cancer referrals, with 7 in 10 trusts in England missing key targets, The Guardian reports. The NHS aims for at least 93% of cancer referral patients to be seen by a specialist within 14 days of a GP letter being sent.
However, the latest data shows that 87 out of 117 trusts in England are consistently missing the target, and have been doing so for the last three years.
Minesh Patel, the head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “There are huge pressures even at that early stage of the cancer pathway, let alone when you get to treatment, and it is really worrying for somebody’s prognosis.”
He added: “If somebody starts treatment later, the more worrying the outcome could be in terms of their ability to survive their cancer, to have minimal after-effects after a treatment. This is about survival and giving people the best chance and improving their quality of life, ultimately.”
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