By Professor Dominic Harrison: Blackburn with Darwen Council public health director

ACROSS the UK, there is growing public frustration being expressed at GPs. dentists and hospitals about delays in to access to health and care services.

The NHS and social care system is under pressure and will be under further pressure over the coming winter months - at least until March. Some areas of the UK will be worse affected including Pennine Lancashire. Why?

GPs across Pennine Lancashire are experiencing a surge in patients seeking appointments and are often facing increased demand with decreased staff capacity. The surge is due to the fact that many patients have managed important ill-health symptoms themselves during the high pandemic waves of the last 18 months but are now coming forward for diagnosis and treatment.

The British Medical Association say that “Since 2015, the average number of patients per practice has increased by 24 per cent whilst the number of GPs has been falling. There are now just 0.46 fully qualified GPs per 1,000 patients in England – down from 0.52 in 2015.”

The King’s Fund and Healthwatch England have also recently called for urgent action to address hospital waiting lists and improve patients’ experience of delays to treatment. Research from The King’s Fund shows that people living in the most-deprived areas in England are nearly twice (1.8 times) as likely to experience a wait of more than one year for hospital care than those who live in the least-deprived areas.

With a record 5.6 million people across England currently waiting for hospital treatment, the analysis also shows that waiting lists are growing more quickly in more-deprived areas. From April 2020 to July 2021, waiting lists have, on average, grown by 55 per cent in the most-deprived parts of England compared to 36 per cent in the least-deprived areas. More than seven per cent of patients on waiting lists in the most-deprived areas of England have been waiting a year or more for treatment compared to around four per cent of those in the least-deprived.

Healthwatch England, found nearly half (46 per cent) of the respondents of a recent poll, said they or their relatives didn’t receive enough information, or any at all, about when they can expect their treatment. And 48 per cent didn’t receive any support to manage their condition during their wait, while 64 per cent had not been given a contact they could turn to while waiting for treatment.  The Healthwatch research also found that 57 per cent of those whose treatment got delayed agreed that this was taking a toll on the level of pain they faced; 54 per cent agreed that their mental health had been affected; 53 per cent that their ability to carry out household tasks had been affected; and 42 per cent that their ability to work had been affected.

A total of 18 per cent of respondents have already gone private for treatment or are considering it. However, going private wasn’t an option for 47 per cent of the respondents who had their treatment delayed as they did not have the spare cash to afford it.

This is not good so what can we do? NHS and social care staff are as frustrated as their patients!

Firstly, the NHS does need to improve communications with patients waiting for treatment or seeking appointments. Secondly, as patients, we all need to be kinder and more understanding of very hard working, and much stretched, NHS and social care staff. Thirdly, we desperately need central government to now direct ‘fair shares’ of the new 1.25 per cent National Insurance tax (for health and care) to areas of highest need such as Pennine Lancashire.

Let’s hope the government is listening.