NHS waiting lists

NHS waiting lists are inevitable. It’s how we manage them that matters.


A record-breaking 5.7 million people are waiting for hospital care. In response, the Government is spending an extra £5.9 billion to tackle the problem. Healthwatch England‘s latest research looks at how the backlog is impacting the lives of those waiting.
It is well known that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on hospital waiting times.

Early in the pandemic, the NHS postponed lots of non-urgent care, freeing up beds for COVID-19 patients. As things progressed, people put off coming forward with new symptoms because they were simultaneously worried about putting extra pressure on the NHS and the risk of catching COVID-19 themselves.

Most recently, the struggles of seeing a GP may mean there are even more people who need hospital care who simply cannot get referred in the first place.

All this has combined to create a huge backlog of people waiting for a diagnostic test or treatment.

Even with the extra money announced by the Government, long waiting lists are here to stay. The NHS lacks the staff to see people more quickly, and doctors, nurses and other clinicians take a long time to train.

But what does this mean if you or a loved one are currently on a waiting list or think you may need hospital treatment?

Over the last three months Healthwatch England heard from more than 2,500 people about their experiences, helping to dig beneath the headlines and support the NHS to make good policy decisions on how best to manage waiting lists.

Current waiting lists

How long are people actually waiting for care?

Let’s start by looking at how long people are actually waiting for hospital care.

At a glance, media headlines can give the impression that very long waits are the norm and that everyone will be waiting two years to be seen. But in reality, many people will get care much faster than this.

For example, the latest performance figures show that the most typical waiting time is 11 and a half weeks to start treatment.

Of the 2,500 people, nearly one in ten (8%) reported waiting for more than two years to receive care. This is still far too many, given the impact waiting can have on someone’s mental and physical health, but is lower than many may think.

The problem with how waiting lists are talked about is that people may see no point in seeking out a crucial diagnosis or much-needed treatment because they fear they will never be seen anyway or feel guilted into not ‘burdening’ the NHS further. This risks creating even bigger problems for patients and the NHS.

Who is waiting for the longest?

In September, Healthwatch joined forces with the King’s Fund to show that people who live in poorer areas are nearly twice as likely to experience a wait of over a year for hospital care than those in the most affluent areas.

Our further analysis found that people on low incomes are significantly more likely to report living in pain and struggling to manage work and household chores due to their wait.

While the numbers of people from minority ethnic communities who responded to the research was small, there is some indication that people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are experiencing similar issues to those on low incomes. This came through in both our polling and our national survey.

The NHS must look into both of these trends or risk significantly exacerbating existing health inequalities due to how they are managing waiting lists.

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Please tell us your experiences of waiting for NHS treatment