Thousands of Peterborough hospital patients wait months for medical tests in Covid backlog

Thousands of Peterborough area patients had been waiting more than three months for medical tests at North West Anglia Trust hospitals at the end of January, as the NHS continued to battle backlogs caused by Covid-19.

Sunday, 21st March 2021, 5:00 am
Thousands of Peterborough area patients had been waiting more than three months for medical tests at North West Anglia Trust hospitals at the end of January, as the NHS continued to battle backlogs caused by Covid-19. Photo: PA EMN-210318-170154001

NHS trusts report waiting times for 15 key tests at the end of each month, which are used to diagnose a wide range of diseases and conditions, including cancers, heart failure, and hearing problems.

According to NHS rules, after someone is referred for one of the tests, they should have it completed within six weeks.

But 2,758 patients at the North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust had been waiting at least 13 weeks at the end of January, NHS England data shows – although this was still down from 3,021 in December.

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Local data was not available for the previous January, but across England, 154,000 people had been waiting 13 weeks or more for one of the tests at the end of January – a more than 20-fold increase from around 7,000 a year earlier.

That was also up from December, although the backlog has decreased from a peak of 362,000 in June.

The Health Foundation said the disruption of the pandemic had piled more pressure on a system already struggling to keep pace with demand.

The charity’s senior policy fellow Tim Gardner said the NHS had made considerable progress in restoring services after the virus first struck, but added: “The challenge of tackling the backlog of tests and keeping up with new referrals means a return to the ‘old normal’ may not be enough.

“More radical options, such as establishing diagnostic hubs separate from hospitals, should be considered.”

Mr Gardner said the Government will need to put up significant investment to improve waiting lists.

It was announced on Thursday that the NHS will receive £6.6 billion in additional funding over the next six months to support the continuation of the NHS response to COVID-19, and the recovery of elective services as hospitalisations continue to fall.

As hospital admissions fall and the vaccination programme continues, the government has said the NHS will be able to start increasing elective care procedures, such as hip replacements or cataract surgery, ensuring people across England get the care and treatment that they need. To support this, £594 million has been ring fenced to continue the hospital discharge programme so staff will have the resources needed to enable patients to leave hospital as quickly and as safely as possible, with the right community or at-home support. This will free up thousands of extra beds and staff time to help the NHS recover services.

Of the 10,403 patients waiting for diagnostic tests at the North West Anglia Trust at the end of January, 5,167 (50 per cent) had been waiting for at least six weeks.

The national standard is that fewer than one per cent of patients should wait six weeks or more.

Nationally, one third (33%) of the 1.1 million patients waiting at the end of the month had been doing so for at least six weeks, compared to four per cent a year earlier.

The most common test carried out across England in January was a CT scan, which can be used to diagnose and monitor certain types of cancer.

This was followed by ultrasounds, which can detect tumours in organs such as the bladder, and MRI scans, which are also used in cancer treatment and diagnosis.

Jeanette Dickson, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said the biggest long-term barrier to solving delays was staffing levels.

“Without thousands more radiologists and radiographers on the ground patients will continue to face long waits, even as we recover from Covid-19,” she said.

Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England, said the Covid-19 crisis has “inevitably had a knock-on effect on some non-urgent care”, and added that hospitals treated more than 1 million people with other conditions in January, nearly twice as many as during last April.

Health Minister Edward Argar said: “Our NHS has faced significant challenges over the past year, but we continue to support the extraordinary effort of health and care professionals across the country to keep services open, and to tackle waiting lists that have built up.”