Rescheduled, delayed, cancelled: the knock on impact of the pandemic on routine health care

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Recently published figures show that waiting times for some non-urgent care across the UK have risen dramatically with the pandemic squeezing the already stretched resources of the NHS. Figures from Public Health Scotland, published in June 2021 found that when comparing to pre-pandemic levels, the waiting list size is 30.3% higher than the 12-month average prior to the onset of the pandemic (Mar 19 – Feb 20), while in England figures published in August 2021 showed NHS waiting lists in England reached a “record” 5.45 million people.

In addition to strains on acute NHS care services on the frontline, there are warnings about the additional public health impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures like screening and routine medical care as well as concerns about a surge in demand when people who have delayed seeking non-urgent diagnosis and treatment return to hospitals.

At the outbreak of the pandemic many hospitals took the decision to delay or stop entirely routine pre-planned surgeries and preventative screening and diagnostics. Some even suspended treatment for more urgent care like cancer treatment on a short-term basis. While many of these services have resumed since the beginning of the pandemic, albeit with a backlog of patients now to be seen, significant strain on the NHS as we come into the winter months because of coronavirus is still anticipated.

In many areas this has led to a backlog of care, both for those patients already in the system awaiting routine surgeries, as well as those who are yet to be diagnosed but would have been through preventative screening programmes run by the NHS.

Delays in healthcare and routine screening

Even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, many NHS hospital trusts were under criticism because of the significant length of waiting times for people who required routine operations. Doctors across the UK are now warning that these delays could be increased further unless the NHS receives additional support to increase capacity across all areas of care not just urgent care in the coming months.

It has been suggested that delays in diagnosis and routine treatments could lead to an increased number of hospitalisations further down the line, requiring higher levels of care, longer lengths of stay, and increased hospital readmissions.

And despite the recent announcement of a new arrangement for health and care funding, commentators are quick to stress that the £1.4bn the new funding programme is expected to generate may not be enough to suitable address all of the concerns across health and social care, which they highlight has been chronically underfunded for a significant number of years, even before the pandemic exposed the frailty of parts of the system.

A reluctance to visit hospitals and use primary care services

Research from the Health Foundation found that there had been a significant reduction in the number of GP consultations since the start of the pandemic which has led to concerns about the care of non-covid patients, patients with long term health conditions and also the potential for delayed diagnosis. Primary care consultations also reduced and have remained low consistently since the beginning of lockdown.

Figures have also shown a reduction in the number of referrals, medical tests, new prescriptions and immunisations. While some of these reductions are the result of advice to delay routine referrals to free up capacity for hospitals to deal with the potentially large number of cases of Covid-19, routine referrals have still not recovered to pre-lockdown levels.

These figures, and other contributions from commentators and researchers suggest that government messages to ‘protect the NHS’ may have had the unintended consequence of discouraging people from seeking urgent medical care when it was required for fear of using services unnecessarily or for fear of contracting the virus when attending hospital or primary care settings.

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A potential future crisis for the NHS

Commentators are now warning that the treatment backlog which has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to diagnostic delays and screening programmes, may lead to a future crisis of care or significant delays in care for people waiting to receive more routine treatment.

Delays in care have not only been reported in cases of physical health. There have also been significant delays in referrals for those seeking treatment for a mental health condition, an area of the NHS which was already facing significant delays in referral and transfer of care even before the pandemic. Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this. People with mental health conditions may have been unable to access appropriate support through primary care pathways, which could potentially impact on their long-term health and care.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the wider social determinants of health such as employment and poverty. Public Health England (PHE) published a monitoring tool which looks at the wider impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on population health, and it is likely that the knock-on impact of the virus could have far reaching consequences for public health in the future as the health implications of lockdown, lack of social interaction and rising unemployment could be significant. 

Where next?

While the NHS delivered some elective treatment during the course of the pandemic, the pressure of caring for large numbers of patients, many of whom were seriously unwell with COVID-19 has led to longer delays for the growing number of patients on waiting lists. Figures also show that access to elective treatment fell further in the most deprived areas of England during 2020. Tackling the backlog, and working towards the “levelling up” agenda to reduce health inequalities, both of which have been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic will be a key component of the work in health and social care over the coming months and years.


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