Credit: Ruth Hametz / Scopio

People in deprived areas almost ‘twice as likely’ to wait a year for medical treatment in UK 

New figures have found that people from deprived areas wait significantly longer for treatment than those living in more affluent areas.

While official policies dictate that patients should be seen in order of clinical need, new figures from the King’s Fund think tank have found that those living in deprived areas are 1.8 times as likely to experience a wait of over a year to receive hospital care compared with those in the most affluent areas.

In poor areas, 7 per cent of patients on hospital waiting lists have been waiting at least a year for treatment, compared with 4 per cent of those in wealthier areas, the recent study reveals.

Tonight, a Panorama investigation into the NHS backlog will air on the BBC. The programme will explore the recent study and will also reveal that waiting lists are growing faster in the poorest parts of England.

On average, waiting lists have grown by 55 per cent in the most deprived parts of England from April 2020 to July 2021, which compares with a 36 per cent increase in the richest areas.

The impact of lengthy waiting lists is being felt across England. A poll from health and social care body Healthwatch England found that more than half of the people on waiting lists said the delay was affecting their physical or mental health.

The watchdog has called for NHS England to tackle the problem by way of “interim support” for individuals waiting for treatments such as pain relief, mental health support and physiotherapy.

Sir Robert Francis, chairman of Healthwatch England, said: “Managing delays should not be a one-off transaction. People need an ongoing relationship, which minimises the risks and stress of waiting.

“Extra investment into elective care should be welcomed but we won’t tackle the backlog overnight. As millions continue to wait for treatment we can take steps to give people the confidence that they haven’t been forgotten, which is critical when you’ve been suffering in silence for months,” he said.

The chief analyst of the King’s Fund, who carried out the study, Siva Anandaciva, said that the data should be a “wake-up call” for the British government.

“The fact that patients in deprived areas are nearly twice as likely to wait a year or more for planned treatment should be a wake-up call for a government that has committed to levelling up the country and ring alarm bells for MPs in red wall constituencies. The government’s forthcoming plan to tackle the backlog of care must include a strong focus on tackling health inequalities and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The NHS also responded to the findings, citing the Covid-19 crisis as an inevitable factor: “While the pandemic inevitably had an impact on non- urgent care, NHS staff made effective use of additional resources, almost halving average waiting times for elective care over the past year.

“Expert clinicians continue to prioritise patients with the greatest clinical need and hospitals should ensure that a point of contact is available to those waiting for treatment, including through patient advice and liaison services.”

Experts believe that the NHS backlog is set to increase “significantly” due to the fact that many people have been reluctant to visit doctors in-person in the wake of coronavirus. NHS figures have shown that In the first six months of 2021, a staggering 7 million people failed to seek medical help.

Analysis shows that aside from the record 5.6 million people waiting for routine treatments such as hip and knee surgery, millions more “missing” patients in need of treatment are not yet on the lists. According to independent charity the Health Foundation, between January 2020 and July 2021 there were 7.5 million fewer people referred for routine hospital care than would have been expected based on pre-pandemic figures.

Now, health leaders are appealing to those in need of routine treatments and checks to come forward to seek the care they need.

Appeals to the public to seek checks and treatment follow the tragic death of 39-year old Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding. Harding admitted that the initial Covid-19 lockdown made her reluctant to get help.

In her memoir published shortly before her untimely passing in September, Harding recalled how the Covid-19 lockdown became “an excuse not to fact up to the fact that something was very wrong”.

Many fear her story will become grimly familiar.

She describes how, during the initial Covid-19 wave, she had almost been using the government-imposed lockdown restrictions “as an excuse not to face up to the fact that something was very wrong”. All “any of us had seen on the news”, she wrote, “was how terrible the situation in hospitals was during the pandemic”.

In her memoir ‘Hear Me Out’ she urges readers to be vigilant about the early signs of cancer, and stresses the importance of seeking medical advice regardless of the knock-on impact of Covid-19.

In the poignant memoir published 6 months ago, she writes: “There had been so much reporting on the news about people missing out on check-ups during Covid lockdown, even though they might be worried about something. People who had left a cancer diagnosis until it might be too late. Maybe if I spoke out, as a public figure, a celebrity, it could help get the message across how important it is to get checked out if you have concerns.”

Health leaders say that although some people may have not sought needed treatment for health concerns during the pandemic, others may have already seen their GP but have not yet had a referral due to the pressure on hospital services and lengthy waiting lists.

Indeed, Boris Johnston admitted earlier this month that the NHS waiting list would “get worse before it gets better”. He said that a new tax rise for health and social care was “fundamental to putting the NHS back on its feet”.

The same problem persists in Ireland. More than 900,000 people are on waiting lists in Ireland, an increase of almost 124,00 since August 2019, according to data from the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

The waiting list for eye-care in Ireland remains ‘unacceptably high’ at 49,000. National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) figures to August 2021 show that almost 41,200 people were on the outpatient eye-care waiting list. Almost 19,000 were waiting more than a year and 14,800 more than 18 months.

Gript recently reported that optometrists said they could step up to help tackle the problem.

“As the HSE has to manage healthcare budgets with the additional pressures COVID-19 has created, there is an opportunity to address this in eye-care through greater use of Optometrists,” Optometry Ireland President John Weldon said earlier this month.

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