Surgeons call for more beds year-round to bring down NHS waiting lists

The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS England) has called for the additional beds opened in hospitals this winter to be retained year-round to help bring down NHS waiting lists for planned treatment. They have also said some of these beds should be ringfenced for surgery.

The call comes as NHS performance data (published on 8 February) shows the waiting list for consultant-led hospital treatment in England fell for the third consecutive month to 7.6 million at the end of December 2023. Some patients are on multiple pathways.

The number of unique patients is estimated to be around 6.4 million, according to NHS England. Patients will be waiting for orthopaedic operations such as hip and knee replacements and general surgeries such as hernia repairs and gallbladder removal. Some patients will also be waiting for surgery to remove cancerous tumours.

In December 2021, the total waiting list stood at 6.07 million. The list has risen by more than 1.5 million since then.

Responding to the performance data and talking about the need for more beds. Professor Peter Friend, Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said:

“It has been two years since NHS England published its plan for recovering elective care. Despite the incredible efforts of NHS staff, we haven’t seen any significant improvement in waiting times and today the list stands at 7.6 million.

“RCS England’s workforce census confirmed that this is due in large part to a lack of resources such as operating theatres, nursing and theatre staff, and beds for surgical patients. The establishment of more surgical hubs has introduced much welcome extra capacity, but the reality is, to make a dent in waiting times, we need more.

“Patients are still forced to wait too long treatment. In the upcoming Budget the government must put forward funds to make sure additional hospital beds that have been made available this winter are retained year-round, with a proportion ringfenced for surgical patients.”

NHS England’s delivery plan for recovering urgent and emergency care services (published in January 2023) committed to introducing 5,000 more staffed, “sustainable beds” in 2023/24 than compared to the originally planned levels of beds in 2022/23. Last month NHS England announced this target had been achieved. RCS England would like to see these beds retained, with some dedicated to patients coming into hospital for planned surgery.

RCS England’s recent report, Advancing the Surgical Workforce: 2023 UK Surgical Workforce Census Report, highlighted a shortage of beds for surgical patients as one of the challenges contributing to long waiting times, in addition to staff shortages and problems accessing operating theatres.

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