NHS faces daunting backlog in non-COVID treatment

OVER a million planned operations and treatments and over 20,000 cancer treatments in England have been cancelled or delayed between April and the end of June due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to research published by the BMA.

It also estimates that more than two and a half million first-time outpatient appointments were cancelled during the same time period. The BMA used NHS England data to estimate the gap between care provided during the pandemic and the pre-COVID ‘norm’. It also surveyed 5,905 doctors in England and Wales.

The researchers found:

  • Between 1.32 and 1.50 million fewer general and acute elective admissions than would usually be expected
  • Between 2.47 million and 2.60 million fewer first general and acute outpatient attendances
  • Between 274,000 and 286,000 fewer urgent cancer referrals
  • Between 20,800 and 25,900 fewer patients starting first cancer treatments following a decision to treat
  • Between 12,000 and 15,000 fewer patients starting first cancer treatments following an urgent GP referral.

Over 40 per cent of doctors taking part in the survey reported treating patients with conditions at a later stage (e.g. cancer, heart disease) than they would normally expect. Around 47 per cent of doctors said they were not confident in their ability to manage patient demand as normal NHS services resumed.

The BMA’s Chair of Council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: "To make enough capacity to deal with the initial peak of the pandemic, the NHS has had to shut down or significantly reduce many areas of non-Covid care. However, in April, the Health Secretary said that the 'NHS was open' and he announced the 'restoration of other NHS services – starting with the most urgent, like cancer care and mental health support'.

"But the BMA’s research and survey reveal a very different picture; a catastrophic drop in elective procedures, urgent cancer referrals, first cancer treatments and outpatient appointments. The full impact of this drastic reduction in routine NHS care in England is only now emerging.

"Millions of patients living with often life-threatening conditions such as cancer, have had treatment postponed or cancelled and others have not had vital initial assessment and diagnosis for health problems.

"This is the real, but so far hidden, impact of the Covid crisis. Patient safety is being severely compromised not just by the virus itself, but by the knock-on effects of an unprecedented disruption to NHS services."

The BMA is calling on Government to provide a clear and concrete commitment to identify the full extent of the backlog and introduce measures and investment to tackle it.

Link: The hidden impact of COVID-19 on patient care in the NHS in England