NHS hospital waiting lists to rise above five million in two years, leak suggests

Head of NHS England says longer waiting times are a 'trade off' for improved care elsewhere

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The Independent Online

The number of NHS patients waiting for hospital treatment could soar to more than five million in just two years' time, a leaked document has revealed.

If no action is taken, twice as many people will be forced to wait more than 18 weeks for non-emergency surgery such as hip replacements and cataract operations by 2019, according to projections made by health service regulator NHS Improvement.

Total waiting list numbers are expected to rise by nearly 50 per cent from 3.7 million to 5.5 million, based on current trends – resulting in delays that surgeons have warned may result in death or serious disability.

Ian Eardley, Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons, said the "devestating" figures obtained by the Health Service Journal "hammer home just how damaging deprioritising the 18-week target for planned surgery will potentially be".

The target that no patient should have to wait longer than 18 weeks after GP referral for non-emergency surgery has been in place since 2004.

But the number of patients waiting longer than that is rising, with NHS England chief Simon Stevens suggesting this should be expected as a “trade off” for improved care elsewhere in the health service, including in A&E and cancer units.

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The estimates from a leaked presentation show that if action is not taken, the number of patients waiting more than four months for non-urgent surgery could more than double to 800,000.

In February, around 370,000 patients waited this long, and the NHS has not hit its target of 92 per cent of patients to be treated within 18 weeks since February 2016.

"Without further help from the next Government after the election, this is what the real impact will be on patients of successive under-funding of the NHS," said Mr Eardley.

"Patients need to understand that NHS England's decision to effectively abandon the waiting time target doesn't just mean longer waits in pain, it also means unacceptably long waits for more serious heart and brain operations where, in some circumstances, serious disability or even death may result."

A spokesman for NHS Improvement said the slides were “part of a presentation to hospital leaders about steps being taken to improve NHS performance”, but “doing nothing is not an option for the NHS."

“We are working with providers to improve their overall operational productivity and to help reduce waiting times for patients,” they said.

NHS England said: “NHS Improvement describe this alternative as the ‘do nothing scenario’, but as their slides rightly point out, in fact the NHS will be doing a lot, hence waits will not move in the way that scenario sketches out.”

In January 2017, 10.1 per cent of patients waited longer than 18 weeks for surgery – up from 5.7 per cent at the start of 2013.