The UK National Health Service (NHS) has come under persistent fire in recent years as a growing patient population seeks medical care more than in years past. With staffing concerns, budget woes, and increased pressure from external sources, the healthcare system has taken great strides to improve its overall functioning in varied ways. However, as the busiest months of the year are now in full swing, many fear a winter crisis of sorts within the NHS promises to be a reality. Health regulators warn that because hospitals throughout the UK have not yet freed up enough beds to make room for the increased number of patients seeking care, target wait times are sure to be missed.
In light of the pressures faced by the NHS, some organisations are taking proactive steps to inform patients in need of medical treatment in new, innovative methods. The BBC recently developed an interactive tracker to give individuals an idea of projected wait times in their local hospital. The wait time tracker pulls in the latest publicly available data on waiting time measures for the NHS, including A&E treatment, cancer care, and planned operations and care, like a major surgery. By simply inputting a specific location or hospital, patients, family members, or others have the ability to view each department’s inspection rating based on target wait times, and how each fares against the published target percentage.
Understanding Wait Time Targets in the NHS
With A&E department wait times, services across the UK are allowed four hours to treat and subsequently discharge, admit, or transfer a patient seeking care. The target for A&E department wait times is 95%, meaning that percentage of patients should be seen, cared for, and moved on within that time frame. For several years, the NHS has failed to meet the target for A&E department wait times across the board, with the average throughout England coming in at 90.1%.
Similarly, patients who receive an urgent referral from their GP are expected to begin treatment for cancer within 62 days. The target for cancer care wait times is 85%, but England averages 82% across trusts. Planned operations and care are measured in a similar fashion, with patients expected to be treated in 18 weeks or less. With a target of meeting this threshold 92% of the time, England again falls behind on hitting the mark, averaging 89.1% for planned care patients.
The online tool is meant to provide more transparency in the level of care in the three major departments of healthcare throughout the NHS, essentially giving patients a clear view of what to expect. The NHS has long struggled with giving the patients and their loved ones the information they need to make informed healthcare decisions as it relates to wait times and missed targets, and this tool offers some light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.
However, the problem continues to be the rising wait times through the major departments of NHS trusts, highlighted in a report published in August 2017. A representative from a leading medical negligence specialist firm shares that the new data reveals that just over 400,000 patients waited longer than 18 weeks for planned hospital treatment, exposing an increase of nearly 73,000 from the year prior. Due to ongoing budget tightening and a growing patient population, the NHS has had no choice but to ration healthcare in a way that could prove harmful to the lives of millions of patients.
As the winter crisis looks to be worse this year than in years past, both patient advocacy groups and the individuals throughout the UK depending on healthcare from the NHS are less than optimistic. Innovative ways to inform the public about what they might expect during an upcoming hospital visit, to the A&E department, for cancer treatment, or a planned operation, is beneficial on its face, but it shines a brighter light on the problems within the country’s health organisation. The NHS has not met target wait times for several years running, and it recently waived the white flag on planned operation targets. Without a strategy in place to remedy the growing problem, the busiest months of the year promise to be a challenge for the NHS across the board.