GP talking to woman

What we can infer from NHS monthly appointment statistics

NHS Digital’s monthly report compiling different statistics, all pertaining to appointments in general practices, shows a 17.1% increase from February to March in relation to the total number of appointments that patients attended.

The report, which is available here, includes a variety of different statistics:

  • Activity levels for appointments that have already taken place
  • The number of appointments by the date the appointment was scheduled to happen
  • The number of appointments marked as 'DNA' (did not attend)
  • The health care professional type of the person seeing the patient
  • The mode of the appointments (face to face, over the phone etc)
  • The time elapsed from when the appointment was booked until when it was scheduled to happen
  • The recorded duration of attended appointments
  • The recorded national category, service setting and context type of the appointment

One of the key facts from the study, as aforementioned, is that 30.1 million appointments are estimated to have taken place in March, which represents a 17.1% increase from the previous month and an 11.9% increase from January.

The increase, at first glance, could represent good progress in the health sector’s continued endeavour to relieve the backlog of appointments and treatments that have built up on the back of the Coronavirus pandemic.

However, when delving deeper into the data you’ll see that 820,277 appointments took longer than 28 days from the booking date to when the appointment was actually fulfilled. This represents a 48.9% increase from the month of February.

The increased waiting times are also not helped by patients just not turning up to appointments at all though, with the increase in longer appointment waiting times extrapolating out into the number of appointments that weren’t attended as well. Per NHS Digital numbers, 1,288,983 appointments weren’t attended at all during March – a 20% increase from the month of February, which was just 1,074,474 appointments.

This is in spite of the NHS continuing to innovate and adapt amidst this time of uncertainty through things like digital appointments, major recruitment campaigns and relentless efforts to expedite the appointment process in general.

The increased prevalence of appointments taking longer than 28 days to fulfil combined with the increased number of appointments not attended at all implies that the backlog problems are far from behind us and that some of the recent government funding that’s been rolled out in Wales may need to be supplemented with action elsewhere too.

The North East and Yorkshire region had the biggest proportion of appointments that took more than 28 days as they accounted for 167,808 – which is 20.5% of the national total.

Cumbria and North East STP and West Yorkshire and Harrogate STP were the wort offenders in the entirety of England as well as in their region, contributing 50,969 and 53,596 to the national total respectively.

That’s a 61.1% increase at Cumbria and North East STP from the month of February and almost a 50% increase at West Yorkshire and Harrogate STP. This come just a few months after Ken Bremner MBE, chief executive at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust declared that the North East was “starting in a much better position than other parts of the country” despite the continued rise of backlog.

Earlier last month a spokesperson for NHS England said: “NHS staff are working flat out to clear the backlogs that have inevitably built up throughout the pandemic with local teams using innovative approaches to reducing waits, such as one-stop shops and Super Saturdays, all while we continue to see busy emergency services and high numbers of hospitalised Covid patients.”

The ever-extending waiting times due to the proliferation of backlog is one of the hottest topics in the health sector amongst health professionals at the moment and despite the pandemic itself being long behind us, the after-effects are still being felt today.

In the British Medical Association’s analysis of some of the monthly figures, they have called for five things to alleviate the crippling backlog the NHS is suffering from.

They include:

  • Preventative measures to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed, with the exact actions outlined here.
  • An additional £7bn of funding on top of the £10bn already announced.
  • Measures to retain the medical workforce and prevent unnecessary attrition of doctors.
  • Viable plans to increase NHS capacity.
  • Better collaboration between primary and secondary care.

Their commentary and subsequent call to arms is further supplemented by members of the shadow cabinet, with Ilford MP Wes Streeting drawing attention to the fact that the NHS was experiencing record waiting lists and staff shortages of up to 100,000 people even before the pandemic.

Irrespective of the party politics however, are the facts. And the facts – or in this case figures – suggest that despite the earthquake that was the pandemic being behind us, we are still continuing to feel its ripples of chaos and disorganisation today.

Therefore, as the disruption and demand for appointments continues and the backlog withstands, the NHS will undoubtedly persevere in efforts to arrest the situation, with them possibly looking to collaborate with external partners and private healthcare companies when necessary.

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