NHS on the brink: Thousands of patients wait more than a year for hospital treatment
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The number of patients waiting more than a year for hospital treatment has soared from a dozen before the pandemic to almost 4,000 in Suffolk and north Essex.
The figures are revealed as part of this newspaper’s investigation into the crisis facing the NHS - for patients and staff alike - as it approaches winter under huge strain.
Our series, running all week, will also look at access to GPs and dentists, ambulance response times and the how the huge pressures are affecting staff mental health.
The pandemic has played havoc with NHS waiting lists as treatments were suspended and around 84,000 patients are now waiting at West Suffolk as well as East Suffolk and North Essex (ESNEFT) hospitals, a rise of a quarter since April 2020.
A further 18,300 are on the list for diagnostics tests across the hospitals - an increase of 50% since the pandemic took hold. That number has been creeping up each month this year and was at a record in August, suggesting the peak of problems is yet to pass as we approach the NHS' busiest season.
We have taken our findings to the Department of Health and Social Care which said: “We are committed to ensuring people get the treatment they need.
“We’ve dedicated an extra £1 billion this year (nationally) and £8 billion over the next three years to transform elective services, which could deliver the equivalent of around nine million more checks, scans and procedures.”
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Suffolk hospital chiefs said staff were working tirelessly to get through long lists.
They said they were prioritising patients by how urgent their treatment was. At Ipswich a new operating theatre has been opened, additional clinics have been put on and the local NHS has been given an extra £10m to cut waits.
At West Suffolk Hospital, those waiting more than a year for treatment rocketed from 87 in April 2020 to a record 3,200 in February. It had reduced to 2,200 by August - the last month figures are available for.
At ESNEFT, which runs Ipswich and Colchester Hospitals, patients waiting at least 52 weeks soared from one in January 2020 to a record of more than 4,000 in March. It stood at 1,600 in the latest figures, showing that steps taken at the hospital to reduce the backlog for those waiting the longest are working.
Meanwhile, at the James Paget University Hospital (JPUH) waits of more than a year shot up from four pre-pandemic to 800 in August; that figures is also coming down.
Two-year wait for a hip op
Hip replacement patient Don Hayes, from Pakefield, said he felt lucky despite waiting more than 22 months for an operation.
The 71-year old was taken in for surgery on the morning of Monday October 4 at the JPUH and was told he had made it just in time.
No more hip surgeries would be happening that day because of a shortage of beds, staff told him.
The great-grandfather was first referred for a hip replacement in January 2020 and was told it would take between 18 weeks and six months, but then Covid hit.
"I just kept calling them and asking them what was going on," he said. "But there is just nothing you can do about it."
The grandfather-of-four is now recovering at home. "I cannot fault any of the treatment or the staff," he added.
Patients are meant to be seen within 18 weeks after being referred for hospital treatment, but that collapsed in the pandemic to a low of just 43% before recovering this year.
Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said hospitals should contact patients on the lists more frequently and see if they could do anything to help them while they wait.
But he also encouraged those waiting to "shop around" and check if they went to a different hospital whether the waiting time might be shorter.
Six weeks on my sofa
Rob Bridgeman, 53, needed urgent heart surgery during the first lockdown, but with treatments cut back he had to wait on his sofa for six weeks, terrified of suffering a heart attack.
Mr Bridgeman started getting chest pains in January 2020. His GP referred him to a cardiac specialist at Ipswich Hospital, but by the time tests had been completed, showing his arteries were blocked, it was March and surgery had stopped.
Unable to walk further than his bathroom, or get up the stairs in his home, he was confined to his sofa.
“The hospital would take my phone calls, but I couldn’t see them,” he said. “Then on April 21 they called and said we are opening in the morning and you are first on the list.”
Mr Bridgeman, a Suffolk County councillor, had two stents placed in an artery and was sent home later that day. He has recovered well.
“It was obviously not ideal lying around for six weeks and in the back of your mind, you are worried about having a heart attack, but once I was in, the hospital couldn’t have been better,” he said.
What the hospitals say
A West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust spokesperson said: "We are doing everything we can to treat patients as quickly as possible.
"We are also working with our NHS healthcare partners and the independent sector to increase capacity where possible, using the additional funding awarded across Suffolk and north east Essex to tackle waiting lists.”
Nick Hulme, chief executive of ESNEFT, said: “Our teams are working incredibly hard to treat patients who’ve waited the longest, and we are seeing a substantial reduction in the number of patients waiting more than 52 weeks.
“We’re using all the capacity we have and are working closely with our partners to make sure more people in the communities we serve receive faster treatment.”
At ESNEFT patient numbers have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
What has happened to cancer treatment?
Hospitals said they had prioritised cancer treatments during the pandemic and NHS figures show the number of patients treated remained high.
However, at the James Paget there was a big increase in cancers being caught at their latest and most deadly stage, rather than early on.
In early 2019, 17% of cancers were caught at the latest phase - Stage 4 - but that number doubled, hitting 36% in July.
Meanwhile, in West Suffolk, those seen within two weeks after an urgent cancer referral from their GP fell from 85% in March 2020 to 60% earlier this year. It has since recovered slightly to 70%.
At Ipswich and Colchester Hospitals there was a slight fall but cancer treatments were largely maintained.
However, for breast cancer there was a huge drop off in April and May at Suffolk's hospitals in women being seen on time.
A West Suffolk Hospital spokesman said: "We saw a significant drop in cancer referrals during the pandemic, but this has now reversed as patients come forward."
Nick Hulme, chief executive of ESNEFT, said: “We kept as many cancer services running throughout the pandemic as possible, including urgent cancer treatment.
“We continue to urge people to come forward for routine screening or get checked by their GP if they have a worrying symptom.”
Regarding breast cancer, the hospital said: “We sincerely apologise to anyone who has had to wait longer than expected for an appointment. There was a significant increase in the number of referrals we received earlier this year.
“Our teams are working incredibly hard to accommodate the rise in demand, including running weekend clinics, and we are now seeing an improvement in waiting times."
Tomorrow: A day in the life inside Ipswich's biggest GP surgery