Sharp rise in waiting lists at Norfolk hospitals

Waiting lists at two of Norfolk's biggest hospitals are lengthening, as it emerged there are 52 people who have been waiting more than a year for treatment at the county's flagship hospital.

A report, which went before a joint meeting of the Norfolk and Waveney primary care trust (PCT) board yesterday, revealed there are currently 52 people who have been waiting more than 52 weeks for treatment at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (N&N).

Increasing demand on the county's hospitals as well as 'perverse' government targets have been blamed for the 'unacceptably' long waits being experienced by some patients.

But last night the N&N insisted they were a result of follow-up treatments being planned some time after a patient's first treatment or surgery to give them time 'for their condition to stabilise'.

At the same time, waiting times for diagnostic visits rose considerably in the six months from April to September at both the N&N and the James Paget University Hospital (JPUH) in Gorleston.

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Last night the chairman of Norfolk Link, the patient watchdog, said he was in constant contact with the NHS trusts and was 'closely monitoring' the hospitals.

Patrick Thompson said the long waits experienced by some people were 'unacceptable' but assured patients that no-one in need of urgent surgery was being delayed.

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He added: 'Although it is distressing to be kept waiting, those patients aren't at any risk.'

Meanwhile, it has also emerged that three patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in King's Lynn, have been waiting more than 52 weeks for treatment.

Both the N&N and QEH have been urged by the PCT to clear the backlog as quickly as possible and are on course to have reduced the number of patients waiting more than 52 weeks to zero by the New Year.

Ian Ayres, executive director of delivery for NHS Norfolk and Waveney, said 'perverse' targets set by the government for treatment waiting times had contributed to the build-up of particularly long waiting times.

Hospitals are required to treat patients within 18 weeks but once they breach – or go beyond – that limit, putting them back on a waiting list risks allowing another patient to miss the 18-week target. For every individual breach, the hospital faces a fine, meaning some patients will simply be left waiting.

Mr Ayres said the PCT had now told hospitals to concentrate on clearing the backlog without worrying about incurring further breaches. He said: 'These people should not be waiting for that long. We have said to the trusts 'we won't penalise you if, by doing the right thing, you breach a few more targets'. We are trying to be as reasonable as we can.'

But Anna Dugdale, chief executive of the N&N, said the hold-ups were simply a result of planned breaks between initial and follow-up treatments.

She said: 'There are several ways in which patients are referred to us by their GP and the waiting times for those patients are covered by the national 18-week and cancer targets.

'We also perform operations or diagnostic procedures on patients following their first treatment or surgery. These may be planned some time after their first treatment or surgery to allow patients to recover for their condition to stabilise'.

A QEH spokesman promised to investigate any cases of patients waiting more than 52 weeks as a priority.

Yesterday's meeting was also told that between April and September this year, waiting lists for initial diagnostic appointments increased.

At the N&N, the number of patients waiting more than six weeks increased from 37 to 142 over the six-month period, while at the JPUH it rose from 12 to 175.

The QEH succeeded in reducing its diagnostic breaches from 150 in April to just two in September.

The report said, at the end of October, 289 patients had been transferred to independent sector providers to help the N&N deal with its backlog.

Harry Seddon, Unison representative at the N&N, said increasing pressure on the hospitals, and a lack of funds to deal with it, were driving up waiting lists.

He said despite receiving an increase in funding, the NHS was facing high inflationary pressures and increased demand, which meant many trusts simply did not have the cash or capacity to be able to offer all the treatment that was needed.

At times when the hospital was particularly full, emergency medical patients could also sometimes be put in beds reserved for surgical patients, which led to the cancellation of planned operations and this also increased the backlog, he said.

Last night, the JPUH said the increase in its waiting lists – which saw a particularly large rise between August and September – was the 'result of a short-term reduction in the capacity in endoscopy to accommodate patients for their procedures and an error in the booking system for waiting lists'.

Dr Bernard Brett, medical director, apologised to patients who had experienced a longer wait and said action had been taken to address the problem,

The hospital expects waiting times to return to their usual levels by December.

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