Ambitious NHS catch up programme is working as number of patients waiting for tests continues to fall

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Secretary of State for Health and Social Care – Rt Hon Dr Thérèse Coffey MP. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

The number of patients waiting for tests and checks has fallen for the third month in a row – and is at the lowest level since the NHS launched its elective recovery plan, the biggest, most ambitious catch up programme in health history.

New figures show that there were 1,521,711 patients waiting for diagnostic tests in July, fewer than the same figures for May and June and the lowest number since February when the plan was published (1,507,483).

Figures also show the busiest summer ever for ambulance staff dealing with the most serious callouts – between June and August, paramedics dealt with more than 237,000 category one incidents, up a third on pre-pandemic levels (177,190 in 2019).

Further progress has been made on the longest waits with the number of people waiting more than 18 months down by almost a third compared to January at 51,838.

The NHS is aiming to eliminate 18 month waits by April 2023 except where the patient choses to wait longer, or for very complex cases requiring specialist treatment.

Hardworking NHS staff are progressing these ambitions despite seeing more people with covid-19 in hospital this summer than the last two summers combined.

On average, there were 8,479 patients in hospital with Covid-19 each day this summer compared to 3,313 in 2021 and 2,032 in 2020.

Despite the significant pressure on urgent and emergency care, both A&E performance and ambulance response times were better in August than the previous month.

The number of people receiving cancer care and treatment remains very high with the data showing that 26,263 people started treatment in July, and more people were checked for cancer following a GP urgent referral than in any other July with over 238,000 checks (238,771).

Delays discharging into the community and social care continue to apply additional pressure on bed capacity in hospitals, with only 45% of patients discharged when they were ready in August, and an average of 13,388 beds a day taken up by patients who no longer need to be there.

The NHS has already announced measures to boost capacity ahead of winter, with the aim of delivering thousands more beds, extra staff to answer 999 and 111 calls, and plans to help ensure patients are discharged on time.

Staff kickstarted the latest phase of the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme on Monday and are on track to visit 1,000 care homes this week.

The booking service opened last Wednesday for millions eligible of people to book in for their top up dose this week with England’s top doctor urging people to get vaccinated ahead of winter.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: 

“This month’s figures show that despite another significant wave of covid infection this summer, we are making significant progress on reducing backlogs with waits of more than 18 months down and the lowest number of patients waiting for tests and checks since we published our elective recovery plan.

“We also saw improvements in A&E performance and ambulance response times across all measures this month, despite responding to a record numbers of the most serious ambulance callouts across summer – up a third on pre-pandemic levels – and continued challenges discharging into the community and social care.

“And staff are already looking ahead for a winter that is likely to be as challenging with more 999 and 111 call handlers being recruited alongside the equivalent of 7,000 more beds being made available.

“This week NHS staff launched the latest phase of the Covid-19 vaccination programme visiting 1,000 care homes and it is vital that those who are eligible book in without delay for appointments next week, alongside continuing to use NHS services in the usual way – calling 999 in an emergency and otherwise using NHS 111 online for other health conditions”.

From this week, frontline health and care workers, immunosuppressed people and those aged over 75 will be able to receive the first ever variant-targeted vaccine.

NHS staff are pulling out all the stops to prepare for the winter period with various new schemes in place to manage additional demand.

In South Warwickshire University NHS Foundation Trust, staff are working hard to reduce delayed discharges – their ‘Hospital to Home’ service, a partnership between the trust and Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, is helping older and vulnerable people back into their home after hospital admission while assessing home hazards. Warwick Hospital has a Frailty Assessment Area which identifies frailty patients prior to admission to start their treatment earlier, in the right setting and tackle the unique challenges their care requires.

Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s same day emergency care unit has treated 15,000 patients in its first year, helping to reduce waiting times and overnight hospital admissions. The purpose-built unit delivers diagnostic tests, treatment and care that would otherwise have required a short hospital stay or capacity in the hospital’s already busy A&E. The service has already been acknowledged as a national example of best practice.

Source: Public Health England / NHS

Photo licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

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