We do not underestimate the scale of the challenges and dilemmas the NHS has faced at every level during the pandemic.

We now see that waiting list figures are going one way only - up. And they won't come down until the NHS can deliver activity faster than patients are presenting with new need.

This means millions are waiting for treatment, many with no idea of when they’ll be seen or who they can turn to for support. This situation must not be allowed to continue.

Our recommendations

So, here are our recommendations for how the NHS across the UK can support patients waiting for treatment.

  • When planned treatment does have to be cancelled, the NHS must understand the impact on a patient, and act in response. This means clear communication with expectations about what might happen next.
  • Communication with patients must be personalised: the NHS should contact patients in the way they prefer, and not use blanket approaches across a single channel. Patients who miss messages first time because they’ve not been contacted in a way that suits them, or are confused by the message sent them, will seek information, or need to be contacted again – both needlessly using up NHS resources. We worked with NHS England earlier in the year on guidance for NHS trusts for good communication with patients waiting for care, which any health or social care organisation can use to check their communications with patients are clear and personalised.
  • Those waiting for care must be given support to help them remain as well as possible in their own homes. There are patients for whom the delay increases the risk of poor health outcomes when they finally do get treatment; better support for them could reduce negative outcomes. Support measures must be designed with the people they are intended for. Failing to support people now will make recovery to full health slower than it need be.
  • There must be a coherent approach across the NHS on how it is communicating and supporting patients on waiting lists. How patients are supported cannot be left to regional variations resulting from different preferences between NHS trusts and health boards.
  • While this may be a moment for innovation, new approaches must be developed with patients, and every effort made to ensure that they work well for patients; new approaches that work well for the system but not for patients will undermine the relationship between patients and the NHS.
  • There will ultimately need to be an effort to rebuild the NHS’s relationship with patients. For many patients, experiences of having treatment cancelled or being unable to access GP services remain fresh in their memory, or are an ongoing issue. While patients remain supportive of the NHS overall, levels of confidence in it are starting to slip: to maintain patients’ confidence, access to services needs to be restored to as close to normal as possible.

7th October 2021