Staff shortages stop 1.4 million NHS operations each year, top doctors warn

Doctors fear NHS staffing gaps will be plugged by workers without medical training

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 08 May 2024 04:23 BST
Prime minister Rishi Sunak admits failure to reduce the NHS waiting list

Hospitals in the UK are facing shortages of almost 2,000 anaesthetists, leading the NHS to miss 1.4 million operations a year, doctors have warned.

The government has been urged to increase funding for the number of newly qualified doctors who can train as anaesthetists as more than 2,000 miss out on places each year.

The Royal College of Anaesthetists has said the NHS will not be able to tackle waiting lists without more of these specialist doctors.

Their warning comes amid fears hospitals are substituting doctors for staff without sufficient training, called anaesthesia associates.

This week the NHS will publish new waiting list figures. They stood at 7.6 million in March.

Dr Fiona Donald, president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists warned: “The shortage of anaesthetists has reached crisis levels and is preventing patients from getting the operations they so desperately need.

“During the election campaign, I’m sure we’ll see all parties pledge to reduce NHS waiting lists but unless their policies include plans for more anaesthetists they will have limited impact.”

According to the college, each year 2,600 doctors apply for anaesthetist training however only 550 places are funded. For more advanced training there are around 650 applicants a year yet only 400 are funded.

The RCoA warned the shortfall in anaesthetists could increase from 1,900 to 11,000 by 2040.

According to an analysis by the Labour party the NHS has failed to hit key waiting time targets for patients to have their operations within 18 weeks every year for the last decade.

In recent months doctors’ unions have raised concerns over that physician associates and anaesthesia associates, who are non-medically trained clinicians, are being used as substitutes for doctors.

In its report, the RoCA warned that anaesthesia associates (AAs) “are not doctors and their training is shorter and narrower than that of an anaesthetist.”

“AAs work under supervision, with one anaesthetist supervising either one or two AAs. The health economic argument for AAs is unclear with little published evidence, but one recent paper has suggested that AAs may be less cost-effective than an anaesthetist-only model.”

Jenny Westaway, chair of PatientsVoices@RCoA said: “Long waits for surgery are too familiar an experience for patients and their families and can have a devastating impact on their mental and physical wellbeing. There is a moral and economic case for patients to receive the surgery they need in a safe and timely way.

“Addressing the shortage of anaesthetists is a vital practical step to cut these painful waits and to enable the millions of people waiting for surgery to fulfil their lives’ potential.”

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