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Waiting in line: NHS queues and you.

For almost 70 years that great British institution, the NHS, has undergone much in the way of change, and many of us have trusted our healthcare to it since birth. Today, under the ever-increasing demands being placed on it and sometimes long queues for treatment, how long should we have to wait?

Waiting time for everything from diagnosis and treatment to follow-up care is a key issue to consider if you’re thinking about whether private medical cover is right for you. Over the past few years, it’s been hard to avoid reading press reports about the growing financial pressures on the NHS – due in part to rising costs, a growing population and increased numbers of elderly patients as we as a nation live longer. Even if the NHS can find efficiencies, it’s hard to see many of these core trends going into reverse in the near future, meaning that the pressures may well become more acute. Here’s a snapshot of the current situation:

Waiting list nearly 3.4 million

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people now struggle to see their GP at times convenient to them. And in some hospitals, the situation has become a real concern. According to the recent Quarterly Monitoring Report (July 2015) from leading health charity The King’s Fund, the total NHS elective waiting list increased for four months in a row to May 2015 and is now at its highest since February 2008 at 3.17 million. NHS England estimates that the true waiting list in May 2015 was nearer 3.4 million people.

Diagnostic delays

Meanwhile, as of November 2015, the proportion of patients waiting more than six weeks for a diagnostic test had missed its target for the past 12 months in a row.[1]  An alternative measure of diagnostic waiting times is the average (median) waiting time. The estimated average time that a patient had been waiting for a diagnostic test was 1.9 weeks at the end of November 2015.

And that’s before waiting for treatment to begin. So perhaps it’s no wonder that many people, particularly those who can’t earn if they don’t work, worry about whether the NHS will be there for them if they need urgent diagnosis or care.

There’s no easy answer to the thorny problem of managing waiting times. Making patients wait for lower priority medical care is one of the ways in which the NHS rations its limited resources. There have been improvements in some areas in recent years, and the government is promising a “seven day NHS” with better care at weekends.[2] However, as waiting times vary from region to region in today’s so-called ‘postcode lottery’ for healthcare, the long term vision of an on-demand NHS with little or no waiting time is far from being delivered.



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