'It can't carry on like this': waits for hospital operations leave patients in agony
Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2009
Patients desperate for hospital operations are having to wait up to a year as the list of those delayed soars to 17,000.
More than 10,000 people are currently on the "backlog" at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), meaning they have been waiting more than the target 18-weeks for treatment.
Another 7,000 are on the backlog at the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn.
The long waits, up by a third in a year in Norfolk, are having a devastating effect on people's lives.
One grandfather, who was meant to get a hip replacement in January, was told this week he will have to wait for almost a year.
The 57-year-old was due to get his right hip replaced at the private Spire hospital in Norwich after a referral from the NNUH.
But last year the NNUH, which is deep in the red, cancelled hundreds of planned operations at the Spire to save £2m.
"I almost cried when they told me," the father-of-three said. "I thought the surgeon said 4 to 5 weeks, not 45 weeks.
"I had been watching other people come out of his office in tears, but I had no idea I was going back on the waiting list."
The Norwich man, who did not want to be named, has been unable to work properly for almost three years because of the constant pain and has been on powerful painkiller tramadol for two years.
The effects of the drugs and long wait, he said, on him and his family were massive.
He has gone from a fit, manual worker to lying on a sofa struggling to walk and running out of money.
When he tried to come off tramadol, which gives him severe constipation, he said he began hallucinating.
"It was like a scene from the film Trainspotting," he said. "It takes you to a terribly dark place."
The NHS website states there is a 35-week wait for orthopaedics at the NNUH and that is mirrored across the county.
"It is scandalous," the man added. "I can't sleep because of the pain, I can't work, I have constipation and it makes you depressed. It affects my whole family and all for the sake of a 90-minute operation.
"I can't carry on like this."
The man's left hip was replaced last year, but this year the backlog for operations at the NNUH has ballooned.
The NNUH warned in November that long waiting lists were pushing its services to "unrecoverable positions".
There are 10,328 people waiting for more than the target off 18 weeks for treatment - up from 7,500 last December.
Papers which went before the hospital's board last week said waiting lists had increased for 11 months straight because cancer and urgent cases are pushing more routine operations, such as hip or knee replacements, out.
More than 90pc of patients are meant to get treated within 18 weeks after being referred, but the hospital has not hit this target since October 2014. It sees just under 80pc of patients in 18 weeks and a total of 47,000 patients are now on its waiting lists.
Sam Higginson, NNUH Chief Executive, said: "Our Trust carries out more than 500 operations a week and our teams are working hard to treat patients as quickly as possible and looking at ways of reducing waiting lists.
"When demand is high, we need to prioritise those whose clinical need is most urgent, which includes emergency and cancer patients.
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"Unfortunately, this means that some patients are waiting longer than we wish for routine procedures and we are sorry for the distress this is causing patients and their families."
At the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, 76pc of patients are seen within 18 weeks. It has 3,485 patients waiting for more than 18 weeks and a total patient list of almost 15,000.
At the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston 79pc are seen within 18 weeks.
The longest waits are in orthopaedics and plastic surgery.
A spokesman said: "An increase in referrals in some specialities and capacity constraints have both had an impact on waiting lists. There are comprehensive plans in place to reduce the backlog, with regular monitoring being carried out."
Its backlog has increased by a third since December 2018 to 3,446.
A spokesman for the Norfolk and Waveney Health and Care Partnership said: "We understand entirely that people do not want to wait too long for an operation and we do not want them to do so either.
"However we are part of one National Health Service, and we must balance very many competing priorities and demands on its money."
-How to get a shorter wait
Delaying operations can lead to patient's conditions getting even worse, but their options are limited.
You don't have to go to your local hospital and can choose to go somewhere else with a shorter wait.
On the website www.nhs.uk/service-search you can find out how long the expected wait is for an operation at different hospitals.
For orthopaedics, which includes hip and knee replacements, the wait at the NNUH is 35 weeks.
At the QEH it is 27 weeks and at the James Paget it is 28 weeks.
The waits if you go private are around 11 weeks, but the operations cost thousands of pounds.
-Hospital £57m in the red
The finances of the NNUH were plunged into chaos last month, worsening waits for patients even further.
The hospital had expected to overspend by around £20m this year, but it now says that will be closer to £60m.
It has taken a massive hit, partly because £20m of NHS money is being withheld from it.
The NNUH said that because it had gone over-budget on staff and beds, it failed to meet financial targets set for it by NHS England and was therefore denied £20m it had expected to get.
Finance director Jon Hennessey is retiring in April. The Trust is yet to announce who will be taking over.
The NNUH is also crippled by debt owed to the company which built it in 2001.
The hospital has to pay Octagon, several times more than the cost of building it.
Despite the hospital's struggles, Norfolk's NHS is giving £5m to fund health trusts in the Midlands.