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Cataracts, hips, knees and tonsils: NHS begins rationing operations

Almost two-thirds of trusts affected as cuts bite
  • @oliver_wright

Hip replacements, cataract surgery and tonsil removal are among operations now being rationed in a bid to save the NHS money.

Two-thirds of health trusts in England are rationing treatments for "non-urgent" conditions as part of the drive to reduce costs in the NHS by £20bn over the next four years. One in three primary-care trusts (PCTs) has expanded the list of procedures it will restrict funding to in the past 12 months.

Examples of the rationing now being used include:

* Hip and knee replacements only being allowed where patients are in severe pain. Overweight patients will be made to lose weight before being considered for an operation.

* Cataract operations being withheld from patients until their sight problems "substantially" affect their ability to work.

* Patients with varicose veins only being operated on if they are suffering "chronic continuous pain", ulceration or bleeding.

* Tonsillectomy (removing tonsils) only to be carried out in children if they have had seven bouts of tonsillitis in the previous year.

* Grommets to improve hearing in children only being inserted in "exceptional circumstances" and after monitoring for six months.

* Funding has also been cut in some areas for IVF treatment on the NHS.

The alarming figures emerged from a survey of 111 PCTs by the health-service magazine GP, using the Freedom of Information Act.

Doctors are known to be concerned about how the new rationing is working – and how it will affect their relationships with patients.

Birmingham is looking at reducing operations in gastroenterology, gynaecology, dermatology and orthopaedics. Parts of east London were among the first to introduce rationing, where some patients are being referred for homeopathic treatments instead of conventional treatment.

Medway had deferred treatment for non-urgent procedures this year while Dorset is "looking at reducing the levels of limited effectiveness procedures".

Chris Naylor, a senior researcher at the health think tank the King's Fund, said the rationing decisions being made by PCTs were a consequence of the savings the NHS was being asked to find.

"Blunt approaches like seeking an overall reduction in local referral rates may backfire, by reducing necessary referrals – which is not good for patients and may fail to save money in the long run," he said. "There are always rationing decisions that have to go on in any health service. But at the moment healthcare organisations are under more pressure than they have been for a long time and this is a sign of what is happening across many areas of the NHS."

According to responses from the 111 trusts to freedom-of-information requests, 64 per cent of them have now introduced rationing policies for non-urgent treatments and those of limited clinical value. Of those PCTs that have not introduced restrictions, a third are working with GPs to reduce referrals or have put in place peer-review systems to assess referrals.

In the last year, 35 per cent of PCTs have added procedures to lists of treatments they no longer fund because they deem them to be non-urgent or of limited clinical value.

Some trusts expect to save over £1m by restricting referrals from GPs.

Chaand Nagpaul, a member of the British Medical Association's GPs committee, said he was concerned about PCTs applying different low-priority thresholds and rationing access to treatments on the basis of local policies.

He said the Government needed to decide on a consistent set of national standards of "low priority" treatments to help remove post-code lotteries in provision. "Patients and the public recognise that with limited resources we need to make the maximum health gains and so there needs to be prioritisation. What is inequitable is that different PCTs are applying different thresholds and criteria," he said.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Decisions on the appropriate treatments should be made by clinicians in the local NHS in line with the best available clinical evidence and Nice [National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence] guidance. There should be no blanket bans because what is suitable for one patient may not be suitable for another."

Bill Walters, 75, from Berkshire, recently had to wait 30 weeks for a hip operation instead of the standard 18. "I believe that the Government is doing this totally the wrong way," he said.

Case study: 'They changed the rules to save money'

Anne Ball, 71, is a retired business consultant who used to work in electronics

"I have bilateral cataracts and under the original NHS criteria I was entitled to have at least one of mine treated – but then the West Sussex health authorities decided to change the threshold level to save money.

"It's like looking through gauze. Everything is foggy, and I've got quite a large 'floater' in my left eye. The consultant was as distressed as me, having to tell me, and he thought with my eyesight he wouldn't be able to function.

"I've appealed because the cataracts are having a significant impact on my quality of life and it's left me depressed and fearful about my low vision, which will continue to deteriorate. The new guidelines mean that people who fall below the standard set by the DVLA still do not qualify to have surgery. My vision is not good enough to drive at night.

"I'm not a cranky old lady. I'm the chair of a local village charity and I do a lot of computer work that is affected.

"It will just store up costs for future years, putting a strain on resources as more patients will end up in falls clinics. The longer you put it off the more complex the operation becomes and the riskier it is for the patient."

Rob Hastings