Medical Negligence

Coronavirus: The impact on NHS elective surgeries in England

Estimated read time: 3 mins

Charlotte Todd, September 18, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic reached the UK, the NHS was thrown into turmoil, with many of its key patient services being delayed or cancelled.

As a result, many patients waiting for elective surgery have been left in the dark, wondering how long they will be waiting for surgery, which could have a devastating impact on their quality of life.

In the final article in our series on the coronavirus’s effect on our healthcare services, we investigate the extent of the backlog of elective surgeries caused by the pandemic.

How has the backlog affected elective surgery?

The majority of patients waiting for elective operations have experienced substantial delays to their treatment in recent months as the NHS paused all non-essential surgery.

NHS England’s most recent figures show that in April, over 1.13 million patients were waiting longer than the statutory 18-week target for elective surgery, with approximately 28 million elective surgeries cancelled or postponed in 2020 as a result of Covid-19.

In order for elective surgery to restart safely, there is a raft of new procedures to follow to ensure both staff and patients are protected from contracting the coronavirus. This includes ensuring the correct PPE (personal protective equipment) is available.

Although NHS England published a framework for hospitals to return to providing elective surgeries, a survey by the Royal College of Surgeons found that 33% of surgeons and trainees have been unable to undertake elective or planned surgery, with 30% of hospital trusts stating those that did take place were limited to surgeries for cancer.

What are the consequences of delayed elective surgery for patients?

Around 1.6 million patients join waiting lists for elective surgery each month. This has inevitably led to an ever-increasing backlog of patients waiting for potentially life changing treatments.

Now that elective surgeries have once again resumed, the wait is likely to be much longer than previously expected, with hospitals operating at a much-reduced capacity to allow for social distancing and infection control.

In addition, a study by the British Journal of Surgery (BJS) revealed that patients are likely to be prioritised by clinical urgency. This means  those with conditions deemed less serious will continue to go untreated for an unknown length of time.

This will not be welcome news for patients. Those waiting for joint replacements, for example, could be left suffering from potentially disabling conditions because of the lack of access to life-changing surgery.

Surgeons may also face much more complex procedures as a result of the worsening conditions of their patients, potentially leading to further complications for those undergoing surgery.

Patients who do eventually undergo their elective surgery may have higher support needs, with longer recovery times and longer hospital stays, suggests Patient Safety Learning. Future patients will also need to expect longer waiting times from the off, with the average waiting time shifting from 8.5 weeks to 13.5 weeks.

Having any sort of operation can be hugely stressful. This stress can be amplified if you had a date for your surgery but were then told it was off.

First4Lawyers is dedicated to helping those who have suffered harm through no fault of their own. Call us to find out more or discover what impact the coronavirus has had on wider NHS services or on cancer treatment in our previous investigations.

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