Children’s health waiting lists rising double the rate of adults, top doctor warns

Exclusive: Children’s services in ‘perfect storm’ as summer viruses prevent progress on care and surgery backlog

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 22 July 2022 09:28 BST
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At least a quarter of all youngsters admitted to hospital for surgery 'do not get adequate care'
At least a quarter of all youngsters admitted to hospital for surgery 'do not get adequate care'

Care waiting lists for children are rising at double the rate of the adult backlog, a top doctor has warned.

The waiting list for children’s care, including surgeries, hit 360,000 in May, the latest NHS data shows, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) warned it is set to get worse amid worsening summer pressures.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of RCPCH, said children’s services hadn’t been adequately prioritised since taking a hit during the pandemic, which was compounded by an “extremely busy summer”.

She said children’s services now faced a “perfect storm” as they struggled to meet demand due to the increased pressure of viruses not previously seen at high levels during summer, and staff being off sick with Covid.

Dr Kingdon said: “I don’t think it’s a surprise at all, that the waiting lists are rising. I think the truth is that the rate of rise of the waiting list for children is more than double the rate of rise for adults.”

Data on paediatric services shows that while the number of children waiting more than 52 weeks for care was decreasing in 2021, it started to rise in March 2022 and jumped by five per cent in May.

The average monthly growth of the children’s waiting list for 2022 is 3.2 per cent and total figures hit 361,333 in May 2022. Now, it is growing at a pace of roughly 10,000 children a month and projections suggest by December it will be at 400,000.

Senior paediatricians have also raised concerns over children’s surgeries being deprioritised and not tackled at the same rate as adults.

One warned their entire paediatric ophthalmology service had stopped as the only consultant running it had to retire, while orthopaedic waits for children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities were also growing.

Dr Kingdon said: “We’re so busy at the moment with viral infections and just generally super busy, it means our capacity to look after these children post-operatively, particularly for the complex child, is very limited and so, you know, surgery will just be cancelled if you can’t guarantee a paediatric intensive care bed postoperatively the surgery just doesn’t go ahead.”

Harry had been waiting two years for treatment for multiple health conditions

Sarah Morgan, from Liverpool, said her son Harry had been waiting two years for treatment for multiple health conditions, such as cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease and spasticity - abnormal muscle stiffness.

She said: “His physio team referred him to an orthopaedic surgeon for intervention before it got very bad. I’ve rung several times and keep getting told it’s the Covid backlog and [given] no indication of when he will get an appointment to even plan to fix them.

“They have now deteriorated massively. It’s been over two years and still not an appointment in view. We think it’s causing him discomfort and restricting his ability to be involved in tactile activities.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the time for intervention had been missed. All I can see is the majority is Covid being the excuse for everything.”

April Fitzmaurice, chief of charity Strong Bones told The Independent: “Essentially during Covid, all services were cut overnight for our families with no support, surgeries are still delayed.”

“It is also so disheartening to see no mention of social care, help for the clinically vulnerable, or reduction in wait times from the potential new prime ministers.”

NHS England confirmed the overall growth of the national waiting list was at two per cent. It did not confirm the growth of adult waiting lists.

An NHS spokesperson said: “It is right that hospitals have been prioritising patients with the most urgent clinical need. The number of people waiting the longest – which includes many children – has dropped by more than 80 per cent since January.”

‘Hidden waiting lists’

But Dr Kingdon warned the official waiting list data, published by NHS England, was a “gross underestimation” of the actual number of children waiting for care overall.

She said: “We’re not even collecting the data adequately to be able to truly understand the extent of the problem.”

There is particular concern around waits for community care services, for areas such as speech, language and autism assessments. which are not included in the national data.

“These are often children who are waiting for autism assessments, where actually that’s going to seriously impact on their ability to function normally for instance, in school.

“If you’re a toddler who’s got delayed motor milestones and you are waiting for physiotherapy appointment, actually, to wait six months is frankly unacceptable.”

One children’s service lead said there was a huge variation in waiting times for children’s community care, with some speech and language services having waiting lists of six months, while for others it’s two years.

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