More than 5,000 patients facing year-long wait for hospital treatment
Matthew Earth and Piers Meyler, Local Democracy Reporter
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Thousands of patients across Suffolk and north Essex are facing year-long waits for hospital treatment as the NHS recovers from the Covid crisis.
NHS England figures have revealed a backlog of more than 5,000 people are now on a waiting list of 52 weeks or more for elective treatment in the region's hospitals.
East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), which manages Ipswich, Colchester and Felixstowe hospitals, had 49 patients waiting more than a year in March 2020.
However, that figure surged to 2,505 in January as coronavirus hospital admissions were continuing to rise.
There were 52,906 patients on the waiting list for treatment at ESNEFT's hospitals in January - the 16th highest number in England.
Nick Hulme, chief executive of ESNEFT, said the introduction of more weekend shifts and working with private hospitals could help clear the backlog.
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He said: "Our teams are working incredibly hard in our hospitals and the community for all our patients and we are doing everything we can to care for people as safely and quickly as possible.
"This includes prioritising those with the most urgent clinical needs first and by using virtual appointments more widely.
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"We are also looking to create extra capacity for treatments with longer days, more weekend working and by working with the private sector and other partners where we can."
Bury St Edmunds' West Suffolk Hospital, which is managed by West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (WSFT), has seen its year-long waiting list rise from 15 patients just before the pandemic to 2,699 in January of this year.
The trust had 20,413 patients awaiting treatment overall at the start of the year, the 90th highest figure in the country.
Dr Stephen Dunn, chief executive of WSFT, said it would "take some time" for waiting times to fall to pre-pandemic levels.
He said: "Throughout the pandemic we have kept emergency and urgent treatments going, including for cancer, but like most hospitals we had to postpone many other operations.
"We know this is really hard for those patients, and where possible we are offering phone and virtual consultations and additional therapy to support them while we reschedule appointments.
"Before the pandemic we had only a handful of patients waiting more than a year. Realistically it will take some time before we can get back to that but we are doing everything we can to see patients as quickly and as safely as possible."
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter, who works part-time as a mental health doctor, said clearing the backlog would be a "priority" for the NHS.
He said: "I've seen in my own medical work the challenges the NHS has faced in providing care. It's been difficult to keep up with routine treatment.
"The priority has to be catching up with that backlog. It's going to take time - it could be six months to a year.
"But I would anticipate that process will start fairly quickly now Covid is in retreat.
"One area of concern has been people have been less willing to seek medical treatment as staying away from hospitals. It's very important people feel safe to do that again."
The British Medical Association has called on the government to put more resources and support into addressing the backlog of care.
The BMA cited an NHS Staff Survey which revealed 44% of staff had reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the past year, up from 40.3% in 2019.
Dr Rob Harwood, BMA consultants committee chairman, said: "These findings underline the intense pressure NHS staff have been under this last year, and the severe impact that this has had on their health and wellbeing.
"As today’s performance statistics show, the enormous challenge facing the NHS workforce in terms of tackling the backlog of care - with the number of people waiting longer than a year for treatment at a record high and cancer waiting times continuing to rise - a further loss of staff would be devastating for patient care.
"Rather than placing further expectation and demand on an already exhausted and burnt out workforce, the government must be forthcoming with the additional resource and support - including a fair pay deal - to ensure staff can manage, and take the rest and breaks they need and are entitled to."