England hospital waiting list grows again to 6.36 million

More patients than ever before are awaiting elective procedures in England, with the number in line for treatment reaching 6.36 million according to the latest figures.

The data, which represents the size of the waiting list for surgeries and other planned treatments in March, represents an increase of 180,000 on the February results.

The overall waiting list has grown every month since May 2020, when it stood at 3.85 million.

That figure isn’t a perfect representation of the number of people waiting for treatments, as some patients will be counted more than once if they’re listed for multiple procedures.

Planned care, which covers everything from cataract surgery to hip replacements, continues to be hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Hospitals across the country have been forced to pause and reconfigure elective care at times of particular pressure.

But despite continued growth in the overall number of waiters, there is a glimmer of good news in the March data.

One of the biggest concerns during the pandemic has been the appearance of extremely long waiters. Before covid-19 hit, it was rare for hospitals to have patients waiting more than a year for procedures. Now, thousands of patients have been waiting for more than two.

Fall into extremely long waits

Although their conditions may not be life-threatening, many will experience pain and reduced quality of life while waiting for care. Some will even see their conditions deteriorate.

Data for March reveals that the number of two-year waiters has fallen from 23,281 to 16,796 since February. The number is still very high, but it’s a massive drop from the previous month, which itself saw a much more modest decline of around 500 extremely long waiters.

There has been a determined push from hospitals to prioritize these extremely long waits. Nationwide, health lawmakers want to eliminate the two-year wait by July. But it remains to be seen how realistic this is.

March also shows a small drop in the average time people wait for treatment, ranging from 10 to 13 weeks from September 2020. This number fell from 13.1 weeks in February to 12 in March.

Before the pandemic, it tended to be between 6.5 and 7.5 weeks.

Similarly, the number of patients treated within 18 weeks rose to around 3.97 million, 62.4% of people on the overall waiting list. Although a slightly higher percentage of the waiting list, 62.6%, received treatment within 18 weeks in February, this was equivalent to about 3.87 million people.

This percentage difference reflects the fact that the number of people referred for hospital treatment has grown month after month.

It’s unclear whether these modest improvements will hold up as more data is released next month.

emergency care crisis

In April, for example, hospitals were battling extreme pressures on urgent and emergency care, with ambulances regularly stalled outside units across the country as they waited for beds to free up. This is likely to have had side effects for elective care.

This ongoing crisis, which health leaders fear has caused serious patient harm and possibly even death, prompted several hospitals and ambulance trusts to declare “critical incidents” in April.

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