Women are bearing the brunt of the NHS backlog, with gynaecology suffering the worst increase in waiting lists, new analysis reveals.
The number waiting to see a gynaecologist has shot up 34 per cent in the last year, the single largest relative increase among the medical specialisms, with 380,000 women waiting in April compared to 286,000 12 months before.
These are among more than 385,000 patients across all specialisms waiting more than 52 weeks for a specialist as of April, part of a growing backlog of more than five million waiting for hospital treatment overall.
Common gynaecological conditions include endometriosis, where womb cells grow in the ovaries or fallopian tubes, causing debilitating pain; urinary incontinence, which is not uncommon after childbirth; and symptoms relating to the menopause.
Women’s ‘day-to-day’ lives affected
Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, an Imperial College London medical researcher who has helped launch a new waiting list tracker with health analysts LCP, said gynaecology had seen staff redeployed both to Covid wards and to fill gaps in maternity units.
“Generally with the conditions that are the most common cause of referral to gynaecology, they’re defined as non-urgent. But they can really cause an awful lot of discomfort and pain, impacting women’s day-to-day lives,” he said.
The new LCP analysis also reveals a 40-fold difference in the number of patients waiting for gynaecological treatment depending on the local area.
In Bassetlaw and Barnsley, there are approximately 400 to 700 people waiting compared to approximately 16,000 in north-east and north-west London.
Growing backlog pre-dates Covid
Even before the pandemic, NHS gynaecological services were grappling with staffing shortages, with a report in 2018 indicating that 90 per cent of departments had gaps in their rotas.
Orthopaedics has seen the biggest numerical increase in patients waiting to see a specialist, with the list growing from 501,217 in April 2019 to 635,728 a year later.
A small handful of specialisms have seen their waiting lists decrease, including cardiology, general medicine, neurology and geriatric medicine.
Dr Pearson-Stuttard said: “It’s not entirely clear why, but these tend to have older patients, and we know that, sadly, of the 130,000 excess deaths from Covid, many of those have been in the older population who might have been on these waiting lists.”
The new analysis comes after the NHS was forced to begin publishing the number of people waiting more than two years for treatment last month.
The monthly official data release had previously only gone up to 52 weeks because before the pandemic, the number waiting two years was negligible.
However, as of April there were 2,722 waiting for more than two years and 64,959 who had waited more than 18 months.
A ‘steadily worsening’ problem
Fears of an escalating backlog have abounded since long before the second wave of Covid took hold.
Last October, an NHS trust in Hull sparked outrage after it wrote to thousands of patients waiting for routine operations, telling them they may need to wait two years.
Dr Rebecca Sloan, a consultant at LCP who co-authored the analysis, added: “Every month, the increase in waiting lists represents discomfort, pain and a real impact on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of women, and this problem has been steadily worsening.
“This is a very immediate issue that will severely impact women who are currently trying or will be trying in the near future to access gynaecological services.”
An NHS spokesman said: “Average waits for gynaecological services are actually down and more women are getting care within 18 weeks. And throughout this pandemic, NHS services have been there for everyone who has needed them, including gynaecological and other women’s health issues, with staff providing more than five million urgent tests, checks and treatments over the last year.”
He said the NHS has created a £1 billion elective recovery fund to try to get services back to pre-pandemic levels.