Intended for healthcare professionals


Waiting list for elective surgery tops four million for first time since 2007

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 11 August 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j3861
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

The number of patients on waiting lists for elective surgery at NHS hospitals in England has passed four million for the first time in 10 years, official figures show.1

Service leaders and experts said the figures showed that the NHS was at “full stretch” even in the summer months and urged the government to take act now to increase capacity.

The data, from NHS England, show that 3.83 million people were on the waiting list for non-urgent hospital treatment at the end of June 2017. But NHS England said the number was likely to be over four million when figures from six hospital trusts that had not submitted data were factored in.

This is the first time that the number of people waiting for elective surgery in England has passed four million since waiting time targets were launched in 2007.

In March 2017 NHS England relaxed the requirement for hospitals to treat at least 92% of patients on the waiting list within 18 weeks, to allow hospitals to focus on other areas, such as emergency departments under pressure.2

The data also showed that in July 2017 90.3% of people in emergency departments were treated in four hours, against the target of 95%.3

Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council, said that longer waiting times and cancellations were harming the care of patients. “To ensure the NHS is equipped to deliver the best care for patients, the government needs to look at the long term funding, capacity, and recruitment issues facing the system as a whole,” he said.

Richard Murray, director of policy at the health think tank the King’s Fund, said that the number of people waiting for treatment was “a symbolic moment for the NHS.”

He said, “While what matters most for patients is how long they wait, taken together with the fact that the NHS has missed the waiting times standard for over a year, these statistics show once again that it is unrealistic to expect the NHS to continue to be able to offer the same standards of care within the current budget.”

Phillippa Hentsch, head of analysis at NHS Providers, said that the figures showed the NHS to be at “full stretch” even in the summer. “There is clearly an urgent need to put in place additional capacity to cope with the pressures of the coming winter,” she said.

“We estimate that somewhere between £200m and £350m is required—that must be something we can find within an overall health budget of £124bn.”

John Appleby, director of research and chief economist at the think tank the Nuffield Trust, said, “These figures show that the NHS continues to be systematically unable to meet its main targets.

“This puts the NHS on the back foot as we approach winter, with problems both at the ‘front door’ of A&E [accident and emergency] departments and at the ‘back door,’ as hospitals struggle to send people home or onto further care.”


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