Patients in England waited 6% longer for elective operations in 2011, says report

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 20 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2881
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1London

Waiting times for eight common elective operations in England have risen for the second year running with 18 628 fewer procedures carried out in 2011 compared with 2010, shows an audit carried out by the Patients Association.

The figures cast doubt on claims by government that changes being imposed on the NHS and demands for efficiency savings will not affect patient care. The association is calling for action to ensure that waiting times do not increase this year and says that greater transparency is needed on waiting times in individual clinical areas.

Altogether 95 out of the 150 acute trusts in England responded to the freedom of information request from the association asking for data on waiting times and number of operations on eight operations: hip, knee, hernia, tonsillectomy, adenoid, gallstone, hysterectomy, and cataract.

The data show that overall waiting times increased by 6% in 2011 when compared with 2010. The biggest increase was for knee operations, for which patients waited an average of 10.3 days longer than they did in 2010. For hernia, the second worst hit operation, waiting times increased by 7.9 days. Waits for surgery for gallstones increased by seven days and for hip procedures by six days.

The number of the audited operations performed fell by 4.6% between 2010 and 2011 from 400 733 to 382 465. This is slightly less than the 5.4% (10 757) fall in number of these operations performed in 2010 compared with 2009.

The biggest decrease was in cataract operations, which showed a decline of 14 267 (from 189 998 to 175 731: 7.5%). There was a similar drop in the proportion of adenoid procedures performed (from 7843 to 7258) while the number of tonsillectomies conducted fell by 5.6% (from 26 080 to 24 613), and the number of hernia procedures by 3.3% (from 51 852 to 50 166).

Norman Williams, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said that the report confirmed what the college had been concerned about for two years—“that patients are waiting longer in certain trusts to receive the treatment that they require and that fewer patients are getting the operations they need.”

In addition to being in a lot of pain, “patients who do not get the treatment they need within an appropriate time could be storing up problems for the future,” he said

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said that the survey was prompted by calls from patients who said that they were being left to wait in agony for some procedures.

“We hear lots of talk from the government about waiting times falling but whilst this may be true in other areas, it doesn’t address the problem in relation to elective surgical procedures,” she said. “Action must be taken now to ensure that the upward trend on waiting times and downward trend for the number of procedures conducted does not continue into 2013 and beyond. There needs to be transparency about waiting times for particular procedures, and problem areas need to be tackled.”

The Department of Health denied that there was a problem and maintained that long waits for elective procedures were falling.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said, “The number of people waiting over a year for treatment has reduced by two thirds since we came into office and the average time patients have to wait for treatment is at the same level as two years ago.

“At the same time the number of NHS operations is increasing and more patients than ever before are being treated.

“We publish waiting times for different areas of medicine and surgery once a month, every month. They show that the average time that patients wait in areas that cover the operations selected by the Patients Association such as orthopaedics, eye medicine, and general surgery, have either fallen in the last year or remain stable at very low historical levels.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2881