Pay or pain? Over 13,000 on year-long waiting lists as some go private
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The number of people in Norfolk and Waveney waiting more than a year to undergo crucial operations has leapt from less than a hundred to more than 13,000 since the start of the pandemic.
Some have decided to take matters into their own hands, with one patient taking out a £16,500 bank loan for private surgery after waiting more than three years for a hip replacement, saying “the pain was indescribable”.
An on-going investigation into the situation facing the NHS has found that total waiting lists at both the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) are at record highs, at 71,473 and 17,483, and at the James Paget there are 14,919 people waiting, down only slightly from a record high of 15,037 in April.
NHS rules state that patients referred for non-urgent consultant-led elective care should start treatment within 18 weeks. At the end of July the percentage of patients seen within the target of 18 weeks was at 68 percent nationally - down from 80 percent in March 2020 but recovering from the record low of 47 percent in July 2020.
Locally, the NNUH's 18 week target percentage was 55 percent at the end of July - the seventh-lowest in the country.
The JPH (66.1pc) and QEH (66.7pc) performed better with both just below the national average.
While waiting lists have increased significantly the most shocking increase is among those waiting 52 weeks or more for treatment - both nationally and locally.
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Nationally, before the pandemic only 3,000 people were waiting more than a year in March 2020, which rocketed to a record high of 436,000 in March of this year before hard work by doctors and nurses cut that down to 293,000 this July.
However the troubling data for Norfolk is that the number waiting more than a year has not fallen back nearly as sharply from its peak.
The NNUH went from 93 people waiting over a year to a high of 11,338 this March, and still has 10,267 who have needed treatment for more than 52 weeks.
The Paget and QEH had no year-long waits before the pandemic, peaked at 1,400 each in March, and have now fallen back to 804 and 1,061 respectively.
The West Suffolk, which also treats some Norfolk and Waveney patients, now has 2,213 waiting over a year, down from 3,300 in March.
This paper understands that the lists are being periodically reviewed by clinicians with urgent cases receiving priority, but the NHS in the East of England has not put out any clear plan to deal with the backlog.
A spokesperson for the Norfolk and Waveney Health and Care Partnership said: “The pandemic has had an inevitable impact on the NHS.
“We know long waits cause anxiety and impact on people's lives, and all NHS partners in Norfolk and Waveney are working together, implementing national guidance and prioritising resources to focus on treating the most urgent patients and those waiting the longest.”
A bank loan? Better than three years of excruciating pain and depression
One patient, who waited in pain for more than three years for a hip replacement, took out a £16,500 bank loan to pay for the operation privately.
The manual labourer, from Eaton, who does not want to be named, was first referred to the NNUH to get both hips replaced in 2017.
His left hip was replaced in 2019 but at the start of this year, more than three years after being referred, he was still waiting for his right hip to be operated on.
The 59-year old took large amounts of morphine every day to cope with the pain and said he became depressed.
"The pain was indescribable," the father-of-three said. "Now I'm walking like a 30-year old again, weight training and working. Before I was very depressed."
Even before Covid hit he had been waiting for more than two years.
"The NNUH told me there was an administrative error and then Covid pushed it back further. I started looking in October 2020 at going private - three years after I was first referred but I didn't have the money.
"The surgeon who operated on me said he was surprised I wasn't in a wheelchair. There was no cartilage left - just bone on bone. The muscle in my leg and bottom had just disappeared."
Last week he heard from the NNUH and was told if he had stayed on the NHS waiting list he would be operated on in December this year or January 2022.
"I would say to anyone waiting like I was - if you can just get a loan and pay to go private," he said.
His fellow sufferer, Don Hayes, feels lucky despite waiting for a hip operation for 22 months.
The 71-year old from Pakefield, near Lowestoft, was taken in for surgery on the morning of Monday October 4 at the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston and was told he had made it just in time.
No more hip surgeries would be happening that day because of a shortage of beds, staff told him.
He knows how those patients waiting feel. The same thing happened to him in August when his surgery was cancelled three days beforehand.
The great-grandfather was first referred for a hip replacement in January 2020 and was told it would take between 18 weeks and six months, but then Covid hit.
"I just kept calling them and asking them what was going on," he said. "But there is just nothing you can do about it. I had to keep taking paracetamol because anything stronger gave me extreme constipation."
The grandfather-of-four is now recovering. "I cannot fault any of the treatment or the staff," he added.
Additional reporting by Tom Bristow and Pete Raven.
Tomorrow: Emergency in A&E - how the mental strain on paramedics is now worse than ever.