NHS patients enter a postcode lottery when it comes to common hospital treatments such as eye, hip and knee surgery in England – with some areas facing huge backlogs while others have almost none, new research reveals.
The “stark and huge” regional disparities show how thousands of patients have been left in discomfort and pain for months while waiting for procedures that would be readily available only 100 miles away.
For example, a total of 2,745 people in Birmingham and Solihull have been waiting more than a year for eye operations, while only two people in Barnsley are in the same situation.
Similarly, a total of 3,656 people in Norfolk and Waveney have still not had their orthopaedic surgery despite being on the waiting list there for more than 52 weeks. But that is 100 times more than the 36 people in North East Lincolnshire.
Even after adjusting for the different population size, Norfolk and Waveney still has 15 times more people facing a long delay for care than North East Lincolnshire.
“Our analysis shows stark and huge inequalities in the number of people waiting on NHS waiting lists. People will be really shocked by how big some of these differences are”, said Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, the head of health analytics at Lane, Clark and Peacock, which undertook the study.
He and his colleagues found the dramatic variation when they analysed official figures by NHS clinical commissioning group (CCG) area.
They used the most recent NHS England waiting times data, published last month, which set out the details of the 4.45 million people who in June were due to undergo hospital treatment, often beyond the 18-week supposed maximum wait.
At the time, 20,776 people in Devon were on the waiting list for eye care, usually surgery for cataracts or glaucoma – 31.5 times more than the 659 in West Lancashire
Devon also had 455 patients who had been waiting more than a year for heart surgery, while only one person was in the same position in five CCG areas, including Halton in Merseyside.
There were 25 times more people waiting for a heart operation (10,299) in Birmingham and Solihull, which has England’s largest waiting list for that care, than West Lancashire (410). Similarly, north-east London has 14 times more people waiting for a new hip or knee (21,729) than Knowsley on Merseyside (1,514), which has the fewest of such patients.
Pearson-Stuttard said the wide differentials were influenced by a number of factors including deprivation, the age and size of the local population, and how badly areas had been hit by Covid-19. For example, Devon’s large waiting list for eye surgery such as cataracts and glaucoma may be due to its older population, he said. Large backlogs and year-long waits in parts of the north-west could reflect the fact that it was badly hit by the pandemic, he added.
“But however we explain it, these big inequalities exist, and we need to do something about it. They clearly need to be addressed, otherwise they’ll just get worse over the coming months and years,” he said.
LCL’s findings come as new research by Labour has found that patients are having to wait more than 18 weeks for some major forms of care at 83 different hospital trusts in England.
For example, the average wait for trauma and orthopaedic surgery at Airedale trust in Yorkshire has reached 22 weeks, 19.2 weeks for eye surgery at Buckinghamshire healthcare trust and 19.7 weeks for gastroenterology treatment at Dorset county hospital.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Patients in every town and city are forced to endure lengthening waits for treatment in debilitating pain and facing anxiety at the risk of permanent disability. Patients are paying the price for Tory failure to support the NHS and staff over the past decade.” Routinely long waits for care were “shocking”, he added.
The government gave NHS England an extra £1bn this year to tackle the backlog, which existed before the pandemic but has grown significantly as a result of hospitals suspending so much normal care during the last 18 months in order to treat Covid patients.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Caring for more than 420,000 Covid-19 patients requiring hospital treatment has had an inevitable impact on the health service’s ability to deliver other care for less urgent conditions, but NHS services have continued to be available for patients who needed them.
“NHS staff have been working flat out to make the best use of the additional funds the government has made available, such as setting up elective accelerator sites, with the number of routine treatments and operations increasing and the health service well ahead of target in recovering elective care.”