With a mounting treatment backlog across the NHS, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has called for the doubling of medical school places, in order to ease the pressure on doctors and ensure the health service can meet patient demand in the future.
In a survey of RCP members and fellows, the majority of doctors (59%) feared it would take 18 months or longer for the NHS to successfully clear existing treatment backlogs.
A third of those responding (30%) suggested the huge backlogs in care, as a result of the pandemic, would take more than two years to resolve.
Some specialisms have felt the impacts in delays to care more acutely than others, with greater concerns showing through from these specialist areas of medicine in the RCP survey.
For example, in gastroenterology three quarters of specialists (75%) thought backlogs would take over a year to clear, including almost half (48%) who think it will take over 18 months.
Other specialties where physicians anticipated more than a year to return to previous ‘normal’ operating levels included dermatology (82%), rehabilitation medicine (67%), respiratory (59%), oncology (58%) and cardiology (52%).
Continued delays to diagnostic testing were reportedly exacerbating backlogs too, according to the survey respondents.
In clinical physiology, as many as 87% of respondents suggested they were encountering delays to outpatient tests, and 73% for inpatient ones. Similar delays to testing were also reported in endoscopy as well.
In response to the findings, and in line with further data which demonstrated the significant mental strain and workforce challenges already faced by staff, as well as a changing, and ageing, population according to projections by the Office of National Statistics, the RCP has called for measures to be taken to support healthcare provision long-term.
Given it takes on average 10-14 years to train a doctor, the RCP has called for a doubling on medical school places to ensure more doctors are available in the future, helping manage the increased demand.
They also called for the forthcoming NHS Bill to address greater accountability and transparency on training the right number of people now to meet future clinical demand.
Professor Andrew Goddard, President of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “Doctors are rightly concerned about the length of time it will take to deal with the enormous backlog of non-Covid care that has built up over the pandemic. We know our patients are waiting for treatment, and in many cases have been waiting for some time already.
“The problem is workforce. Vacancies were high going into the pandemic – we simply don’t have enough doctors to meet demand which is why we need to expand the workforce.
“We need to double the number of medical school places and establish transparent processes to ensure we are training enough people now to meet future demand.”
Eddie Kinsella, Chair of the Patient & Carer Network at the RCP, added: “Attention must now focus urgently upon those patients whose important healthcare requirements have effectively been placed on hold during the last year.
“The Patient & Carer Network knows that the crisis has had a terrible impact upon many individuals and their families, both in terms of their physical and mental wellbeing. Many patients with serious conditions have endured lengthy waits for treatment, despite the remarkable efforts of NHS staff during this period.
“It is essential that a clear plan is produced urgently to address the backlog of cases, matched with appropriate resources. New, innovative ways of working will help but such a plan must address the long-standing issue of workforce shortages.
“It would be folly to assume that exhausted clinical staff can simply add to their existing workload in a safe manner.”