Doctors 'concerned' patients' health will suffer due to non-Covid backlog

The backlog could take five years to clear

The backlog could take five years to clear - Credit: Ken Mears/Holly Chant

Doctors in east London are "not confident" they will be able to manage patient demand with a whole "thread" of issues contributing to a consultation explosion that could allegedly take five years to clear.

Analysis of NHS figures shows that during the course of the pandemic, some areas have seen more than a 27-fold increase in the number of patients waiting for more than a year for elective treatment.

The latest British Medical Association survey also reveals 50 per cent of doctors in London are either "not very" or "not at all" confident that their department or practice will be able to manage patient demand.

A further 49.2pc fear it will take more than a year to clear the backlog of elective care.

GP Dr Ben Molyneux, who works across practices in Havering and Hackney, and has worked at Queen's and Homerton hospitals through the pandemic, says the problem is threefold. 

Ben Molyneux Ben Molyneux

Dr Ben Molyneux says the backlog issue is result of three big issues colliding - Credit: Ben Molyneux

Unseen health problems have progressed

"People who previously had been holding on to their health concerns because they worried about contracting Covid or overburdening practices when we were in crisis mode, their health problems have progressed over time and now they're presenting to GP or A&E with quite advanced illnesses.

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"We usually would have picked these up sooner but because they haven't consulted with us we're seeing people who are more unwell and require assistance more quickly, we're trying to prioritise those people."

Delays in getting treatment

"Secondly, we've also got the people that we had already identified as having a problem but because of a redirection of response towards Covid, particularly in hospitals, traditional services like camera testing and diagnostics have been significantly delayed - so those people who we knew had problems haven't had those fixed yet.

"As a GP, we're holding on to sicker patients than we normally would, because there hasn't been anywhere to send them because the doctors we would normally send them to have been doing Covid.

"It's nobody's fault, it's just only so many doctors and so much capacity, we just had to prioritise Covid at the beginning of the year and that has replicated across the country."

The "worried well"

"For whatever reason, the worried well are consulting in massive quantities recently.

"There has been an explosion of people wanting to get things checked up and it's difficult to know whether that is the usual stuff we would have picked up, only spread across four months maybe, rather than three weeks.

"It's a lot of low-level stuff that people could normally manage themselves and they are choosing not to, they're being very risk-averse and it's a real culture shift.

"They have gone from 'I mustn't speak to the doctor, I'll manage everything myself' - which we wouldn't want them to do - and now we're at the other end of the spectrum, where I'm saying 'well you've had a headache for an hour?'"

"There's a lot of health anxiety out there, people are very concerned with coughs or colds that three years ago they may have put up with and now we've told them not to."

He added: "Things like hay fever, it comes every year and we are well aware of but because we've told people 'anyone who coughs should have a Covid test and contact their doctor'.

"Lots of people cough with hay fever, and so they're calling us because we told them to, even though we know and they know it's hay fever.

"There are so many threads to this and it all adds up to lots of work and increased waiting times for patients. It is very frustrating right now if you're trying to see your doctor because waiting, referral and diagnostic times are just going up and up."

Five years to clear the backlog

"The NHS and the government need to be really honest about what their expectation should be for the next six months and up to three years because the best-case scenario if we were operating at 110pc capacity, ignoring the fact that everyone's tired and needs a break, it's going to take five years to clear the backlog."

However, Dr Molyneux said he thinks the critically ill will still be able to receive life-saving treatment.

"Heart disease and stroke, the big-ticket health problems, I'm fairly confident those will float to the top and we will manage those but for the lower acuity problems, they will take longer to fix.

"We will get there in the end but it's going to be a bumpy road."