Since its beginning in 1948, the NHS has transformed our healthcare system in the UK. Offering free healthcare to all has allowed more people to take care of themselves, without the strain of being faced with a large bill at the end of their treatment.
The pandemic undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on the NHS, the influx of people needing emergency treatment making them busier than ever, something we’re still seeing the impact of in 2023. The combination of ongoing pressure on services, the backlog of care and workforce shortages mean waiting times have only gotten worse, now reaching another record high with the highest number of people waiting for treatment since records began in 2007.
How long should we be waiting?
In 2004 official standards were put in place for how long you should be waiting for referral treatment. Before this there were only targets in place for cancer treatment. The current expected waiting time standards are:
- 18 weeks from referral to consultant-led treatment (for 92% of patients)
- Two weeks to see a specialist for urgent cancer referrals (for 93% of patients)
You can find more information on waiting times and what to expect when waiting for treatment on the guide to NHS waiting times in England.
With the ongoing extra pressure being put on the NHS for treatment, achieving these targets has not been possible. Cancer treatment and treatment for heart conditions continue to be a top priority due to the higher risk, so this has been less impacted than other non-emergency procedures which have been cancelled or pushed back for months.
The number of referral patients waiting to start treatment at the end of December 2022 was 7.2 million patients. Of those, 406,035 were waiting more than 52 weeks for their treatment, 54,882 patients were waiting more than 78 weeks, and 1,234 patients were waiting more than 104 weeks.
The NHS has many exceptional qualities, but due to the overwhelming number of people needing appointments the waiting time can be long. The 18-week target has also been scrapped for hip or knee replacement surgery, cataract removal, hernia repair and other non-urgent operations, so you could be waiting any amount of time for these. Despite the impact of delaying these surgeries on people’s lifestyles, they are not considered an emergency and are treated less urgently.
Can the NHS reach these standards?
The standard was last met in February 2016, when the number of patients who had waited more than 18 weeks was 269,589. Even before the pandemic took charge, in January 2020 the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks increased nearly threefold to 730,267 in this 4-year period. As well as this, the waiting list had grown from 3.35 million to 4.42 million.
Data released in January 2023 showed that 48,961 patients are already waiting over 78 weeks for elective care in November 2022. The NHS is aiming to reduce this to zero by the end of March 2023, but to do this they would need to treat all of those people, but also anyone who will have been waiting longer than 78 weeks between the end of November and the April deadline. This could total as many as 218,000 people that need to be treated.
How to reduce waiting times
The NHS places you on the waiting list depending on the urgency of your case, so unfortunately there isn’t really any way to speed up the process for NHS treatment. The simplest way for you to reduce the length of time you are waiting is to instead opt for private treatment.
The pandemic and the ever-growing waiting list have actually caused a lot of people to fund their own operations with private treatment already, however, this comes with a high price tag. A hip replacement surgery comes in at an average of £12,857 which is an extortionate price and unachievable for most people. Instead of finding yourself in a situation where your options are to join a long waiting list or pay thousands, you can opt to get private health insurance.
Private health insurance is a fantastic way to invest in your healthcare and get faster access to essential treatment. By paying a monthly fee, you will be covered for a range of different treatments without those dreaded waiting times or paying extreme prices. Private treatment can have you seeing a specialist within a few weeks, rather than having to potentially wait for over a year for a referral appointment.
At Westfield Health, we have two different levels of private health insurance available, both with the option of adding an outpatient benefit. Unlike traditional private medical insurance, our private health insurance is more affordable and therefore accessible to more people. We won’t ask you for any extensive medical history, instead, your premium is based on your age and you will be covered as long as you continue to pay your monthly fee. One way we keep the cost down is by not including cover for cancer or heart conditions. Both of these are treated as high-priority by the NHS due to the severity of these, so you won’t need to go private in order to get fast treatment.
Reducing waiting times with private health insurance
Even with huge efforts, the reality is that longer waiting times for referral treatment are likely to be a feature of the NHS for several years at least. Where possible, more people are looking for alternative ways they can be seen faster and one of the best options for this is private health insurance.
For more information about private health insurance and the available plans, head to our ‘what is private health insurance’ blog and read our detailed plan guides.