The Covid-19 knock-on: public health and the impact of delays in non-urgent treatment and diagnosis

Since the beginning of the pandemic, concerns have been raised about the wider public health impacts of coronavirus. 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 in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

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. As a result, many hospitals are not working at full capacity in order to prepare for potential increases in admissions due to coronavirus or staff shortages over the winter.

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 programmes 

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, which in some parts of the UK can be as long as three years. 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.

Data released by NHS England in October 2020 showed the numbers waiting over a year for hospital treatment have hit a 12-year high, with almost 2 million patients waiting more than the target time of 18 weeks for routine care.

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.

A reluctance to visit hospitals and use primary care services

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.

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.

 

A potential future crisis for the NHS and a ticking time bomb for public health

Doctors 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 challenges of the coronavirus pandemic for the NHS will not be going away anytime soon, it is clear that it will be necessary for the NHS and other supporting services to act now to prevent a longer term public health crisis. It is critical that we not only focus on the acute care of Covid-19 patients, but also proactively manage patients without Covid-19, particularly those with time-sensitive, complex and long term conditions who are postponing their care. We must also consider the knock-on impacts of delayed diagnosis for those people who missed out on routine screening or who were unable or too afraid to visit their GP or hospital. This is important not only to sustain health and life, but to preserve hospital and NHS capacity in the future.


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Mobilising healthy communities: Bromley by Bow Health Partnership

Ian Jackson of the Bromley by Bow Health Partnership was the guest speaker at the first Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) seminar series of the year.

The Bromley by Bow Health Partnership (BBBHP) is a collaboration between three health centres and other non-primary care partners in the Tower Hamlets area of London. The aim of the partnership and the new primary care delivery model which comes with it is to transform the relationship between the public and primary health care. This means considering the wider determinants of health when the partners plan and deliver care, rather than treating healthcare in a purely biomedical way.

Edited image by Rebecca Jackson. Map via Google Earth

Edited image by Rebecca Jackson map via Google Earth

Effect of social determinants on health

In the 1890s Charles Booth created a map of London which categorized areas of the city of London depending on their levels of deprivation. The most recent Indices of Multiple Deprivation Report showed that those same areas considered deprived in the1890s are still facing the highest levels of multiple social deprivation and health inequality today. It is no secret that disadvantage has a negative impact on people’s ability to make the best choices when it comes to health. And disadvantage at a social level can have a significant influence on poor physical and mental health across a range of conditions.

More recent research conducted by Michael Marmot looked more closely at what determines health outcomes in populations, and the extent to which other factors influence people’s health, or rather their ability to be well.

He produced what is known as the 30/70 model: 30% of what determines your health is your genetics and improvements in pharmacology, the other 70% is related to other “external factors” including poverty, environment, culture, employment and housing. BBBHP has used this as the foundation for their primary care model, arguing that primary care providers are not just dispensers of medical products, but have a responsibility to contribute to people living healthier lives in their community.homeless

Social prescribing

One issue highlighted by the BBBHP was the significant number of people presenting at GP surgeries with “non-medical” ailments, or medical ailments triggered by “non-medical stimulus”. People were arriving at the practices and booking appointments because they were lonely and it gave them somewhere to go. Others were presenting with symptoms of depression, which on further investigation were found to have stemmed from issues around debt or domestic violence. A social prescribing service was set up by the partnership to try to tackle some of these non-medical conditions and improve the health of the general population by non-pharmacological means.

The social prescribing service, where GPs refer people to other local services for help, can be used as a replacement for pharmaceutical interventions, or be supplementary to them. GPs, or other primary care staff, may refer any adults over the age of 18 to one of over 40 partnership organisations. These range from walking groups to formal sessions with advisors in debt or domestic violence agencies, as well as art classes, community gardens and companionship services to combat loneliness. The organisations can provide help and advice on issues such as employment and training, emotional well being and mental health.Ölfarbe

The challenges of quality and funding

Maintaining quality in the provision of social prescribing is a particular challenge for BBBHP. They work regularly with trusted partners, particularly the Bromley by Bow Centre. However, there is no consistent quality check for many of the services from the health partners themselves. Evaluative studies and feedback sessions are used to assess quality and impact, and consider the scale of demand. And while it is acknowledged that more formal frameworks for assessing quality and impact of social prescribing services are preferred in formal assessments, in reality, word of mouth, participant feedback and uptake rates are used as a standard for quality as much as official feedback in a localised community setting.

A second issue is funding. BBBHP identified that finding long term funding was their main issue in providing security for providers and service users, as well as for GPs referring to services. Funding is vital not only to ensure the survival of the community groups who provide some of the referred services, but also to allow them to develop longer term partnerships and build capacity within the social prescribing service. The BBBHP works closely with the Bromley by Bow Centre, a key provider of support services for the local community, but like many services which rely on funding, they increasingly have to plan for tighter budgets.

blue toned, focus point on metal part of stethoscope

A final challenge for the staff at BBBHP was changing people’s expectations of primary care, and what it means to live well. Some patients were suspicious and reluctant to be recipients of “social prescription”, as this did not fit with the traditional expectation of what GPs should do to make people well. This can be a big change in mindset for some people, according to Ian Jackson, when people come expecting to be prescribed antidepressants but are instead “prescribed” a walking club or a debt advice service. He noted that the reaction from patients can sometimes be confused or hostile, and some patients do not even turn up for referrals.

Improving patients’ understanding of the benefits of social prescription, ensuring people attend referral appointments, and that social prescriptions have a long term impact is something which BBBHP are hoping to research further. They feel that looking at the long term impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions and how these feed back into the wider agenda of tackling inequalities is important to allow the partnership to continue to build healthy communities and save on primary care costs in the long term.

category-picture-community-development

Creating positive social connections to improve community health

Social prescribing and other associated projects have sparked new social connections. Members of the community have come together to form their own support groups. The Children’s Eczema support group run by local GPs and the DIY health scheme, which sought to educate and support parents who were anxious about minor ailments in children, have helped parents in the area to set up WhatsApp groups, organise coffee mornings and go to one another for support. Such initiatives are regarded by BBBHP as important in tackling wider, systemic social inequality in the area.

Currently, primary health care in communities is focused on illness. This needs to change, according to BBBHP, with local community-based health delivery based as much around social health as biomedical issues. Through its social prescribing and other services BBBHP has aimed to focus on supporting people in a holistic way, tackling health inequalities as well as biomedical illness, to allow them to make good choices to improve their health.


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