The National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that 40% of clinical negligence claims in the UK are based on issues arising from NHS waiting times, and the number of such cases is due to rise.

NHS targets are being repeatedly missed, with those waiting longer than 18 weeks for an operation having tripled in the last five years, and the target for elective treatment not hit since February 2016.

1 in 4 patients given urgent referrals waiting two months for treatment

A recent NAO report has revealed that only 44% of NHS trusts met the waiting times standard for elective treatment in November 2018, and a mere 38% met the waiting times standard for cancer care. 

Meanwhile, there has been a 17% increase in the number of elective treatment referrals in the last five years, which translates into an increase of about 100,000 patients treated each month. The report also warned that urgent referrals for suspected cancer have nearly doubled, from 1 million in 2010/11 to 1.94 million in 2017/18. Official figures reveal that one in four patients who are given an urgent referral are now waiting at least two months for treatment.

The 2019 report believe that NHS England’s policy of encouraging early cancer detection was likely to explain the rise in urgent referrals. Published this year, a long-term plan for the NHS pledges to increase early diagnosis rate, from 1 in 2 patients to 3 in 4 patients, by 2028.

The NAO report highlights the link between longer waiting times and the potential for clinical negligence claims against the NHS, saying:

“For many people, longer waits result in inconvenience and the discomfort associated with living with a medical condition. But for others their condition may deteriorate and a longer wait for treatment may cause them harm.”

According to the report, the lack of NHS beds is a key issue. NHS trusts understandably choose to use their beds to treat emergency patients and cancer patients, as the nature of those patients’ needs require more urgent care than elective treatment patients.

The seven per cent drop in NHS beds since 2011 will have more repercussions than waiting times, according to the report. There are concerns that a lack of beds could also result in many patients being sent home prematurely. NHS digital data found that emergency readmissions have increased by 10 per cent in the past four years, with one in seven cases returning to the hospital in 28 days.

Professor Neil Mortensen, the vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons, agreed that bed shortages must be prioritised:

“Surgeons firmly believe that there are now not enough beds within the NHS to efficiently deal with demand and there needs to be a commitment to increasing bed capacity, so that more patients can be seen in a reasonable timeframe.”

Responding positively to the NAO report, an NHS spokesperson stated:

“As the additional funding to help deliver the NHS Long Term Plan becomes available from April, local health groups are being allocated the money they need to increase the amount of operations and other care they provide, to cut long waits.”

Without such significant investment, we can only expect NHS waiting times to continue to rise, and with it, to see an increase in clinical negligence claims by patients who suffer from waiting too long for care.

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