21,273 operations in the NHS were cancelled at the last minute in the three months to the end of December 2022, with hospitals feeling ‘winter pressures’ well before the season officially started.
The data also shows 4,593 patients were not treated within 28 days of their cancellation, in a breach of the standard.
Official statistics set out operations cancelled at the last minute for non-clinical reasons. A ‘last-minute cancellation’ is one that occurs on the day the patient was due to arrive, after they have arrived in hospital or on the day of their operation.
NHS England’s monthly Referral to Treatment (RTT) statistics also report the total number of people waiting for consultant-led NHS hospital treatment saw a small increase on November 2022, with 7.20m on the list in December 2022.
Despite the huge efforts of NHS staff, the number of patients waiting more than 18 months started to increase again. In November 2022, it was 48,961 and rose to 54,882 patients waiting 18 months (78 weeks) or more in December 2022 for consultant-led hospital treatment.
Common long waits
The Government’s Elective Recovery Plan has a target to eliminate NHS waits of over 18 months (78 weeks) by April 2023.
Most common long waits seen were for trauma and orthopaedic treatment (797,630), ENT (549,656) and general surgery (442,948).
Mr Tim Mitchell
Mr Tim Mitchell, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, commented that although NHS staff had worked ‘incredibly hard’ to dramatically reduce the longest waits for surgery, too many patients still suffered the distress of having their operations cancelled at the last minute.
He said: ‘Their lives, and sometimes livelihoods, remain on hold while they wait for a new date and the relief from pain that surgery will bring. In some areas, surgeons are telling us that they are dealing with more complex cases, more frequently, as patients’ conditions deteriorate while on long waiting lists.
‘No surgeon wants to be in the position of telling a patient their surgery has to be cancelled, but the very high demand we have seen in emergency departments since the summer, and problems discharging patients who are ready to leave hospital when there is a lack of social care, mean this is too often what has to happen.
‘Gaps in the workforce also play a huge part. Often there will be a surgeon available to operate, but no theatre nurses or anaesthetists.’
NHS England has announced 37 new surgical hubs, ten expanded existing hubs and 81 new theatres dedicated to planned care in a bid to speed up the recovery of waiting lists.
Mr Mitchell added: ‘These new surgical hubs will go a good way to helping bring down waiting lists. It is excellent news for patients and positive news for surgeons who have shared with us their frustration at not being able to get patients in for their operations due to a lack of theatre capacity. But there is more to be done.
‘We would like to see surgical hubs established in every area of the country with a particular focus on those areas that are underserved and struggling to bring down waiting times.
‘All of this will also mean nothing in the long term unless we have a resilient workforce to staff hubs. The Government’s much anticipated workforce plan couldn’t come soon enough.’