By Yuri Prasad
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NHS cuts means long waits and more lives put at risk

People are waiting years for treatment
Issue 2854
Patients waiting for hospital treatment

Years of underfunding mean NHS waiting lists are risking lives (Picture: Jori Samonen/ Flickr)

The devastating impact of long NHS waiting lists on patients is a point made regularly by striking nurses and doctors. Now the head of the Royal College of GPs has backed up their claims. Professor Kamila Hawthorne says that many of the 7.2 million people in the backlog are developing cancers. And they’re enduring so much pain that they cannot even climb stairs to get to their bedroom and toilet.

A huge lack of health workers, and too few hospital beds, means that people are waiting years for treatment. “Patients getting sicker while they are on the waiting list is something GPs see and worry about. It’s inevitable that some people will get sicker, because that’s the nature of illness,” Hawthorne told the Guardian newspaper.

Hawthorne says patients regularly see their GPs after waiting for a few months and complain that they’ve heard nothing from their hospital. “Often the waiting times for orthopaedics can be a year or two, so you know it’s going to take ages. Then they’ll tell you that their toilet is upstairs and in order to get up there they’re having to crawl.

“Or it could be that their hip or knee pain is coming to the point where they can’t sleep at night. That’s the kind of thing we hear.” Long and agonising waiting lists also mean that women in particular are exposed to a greater risk of untreated cancer. 

Women with persistent heavy bleeding that has not responded to treatment are a particular worry because the blood loss could be a sign of gynaecological cancer, says Hawthorne. “The waiting list [for a test] will be eight to 12 months, and in the old days, so to speak, it would have been eight weeks. The risk that’s being carried is so much greater”.

The awful reality of dangerous NHS waiting lists is driving a big rise in the number of people turning to private healthcare firms. Private procedures paid out of pocket have risen more than 33 percent since before the pandemic.

Rather than take some of the strain off the NHS, going private does the opposite. The private sector has hardly any medical staff of its own. Instead, it uses NHS doctors and other staff to perform operations and care for patients. That means doctors that should be helping reduce the NHS backlog are instead racking up profits for private health firms.

And that fact begs a question to the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting. He says a future Labour government will ramp up the use of the private sector to bring down NHS waiting times. How will stealing resources from our NHS help when the real solution is a massive increase in staffing?

Scottish doctors to strike

Junior doctors in Scotland have voted overwhelmingly for strikes in a pay fight with the Scottish government. In a ballot of 5,000 BMA Scotland union members, some 97 percent voted for a 72-hour walkout. The turnout was in excess of 71 percent. Doctors want full pay restoration after a real-terms pay cut of 23.5 percent since 2008. The Scottish government has imposed a rise of just 4.5 percent.

Dr Chris Smith of the BMA said the offer was “unacceptable”. “We are no longer prepared to stand aside, feeling overworked and undervalued, while witnessing so many junior doctors seeking employment abroad or outside the NHS where our considerable skills are properly valued.”

Dr Tiffany Li backed him, saying, “Patient care is the centre of what we strike for. On a daily basis we are seeing that patients are not getting the care that they need. “We’re seeing surgeries being cancelled because of a lack of staff and outpatient clinics being cancelled, again because of a lack of doctors.”

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