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The Health Foundation warned of “a rising tide of unmet need” and a hidden backlog of patients who have not yet been added to waiting lists for procedures such as hip, knee and cataract surgery. Referral numbers, taken between January and August, are down by a third compared with last year. The figures show how the coronavirus crisis has affected health services, the think-tank said.
Report author Tim Gardner, a senior fellow at the foundation, said: “While the NHS is rightly focused on the urgent task of fighting Covid-19, there is meanwhile a rising tide of unmet need which will have a significant impact on people’s health if a sustainable solution is not found.
“The NHS made significant progress towards fully reopening services after the first peak of the pandemic but there is still a potentially huge hidden backlog, as the health service is undertaking far fewer procedures compared to last year.”
The Health Foundation warned that if the virus is not controlled this winter, even more treatments will be postponed.
Mr Gardner called for “radical interventions” to address the backlog.
He added: “There is no silver bullet. Addressing these issues will take time, money and determination.
“A range of options should be explored, including making greater use of the independent sector, greater use of remote consultations and creating dedicated diagnostic hubs and elective care centres.
“If no action is taken, long waits could become the norm for millions of people.”
The analysis found there were 4.7 million fewer patients referred for routine, consultant-led treatment in England during the first eight months of this year, compared to 2019.
Referrals were down 43 percent for oral surgery (177,000 fewer patients) and 42 percent for trauma and orthopaedics, including hip and knee replacements.
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said it had been impossible to catch up with the enormous backlog of surgery that built up during the first wave of the epidemic.
He said: “We now face a challenging few months, with looming winter pressures, so every option must be fully explored to keep planned surgery going. This includes using the independent sector to create additional beds and theatre capacity, as suggested by the Health Foundation.”
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