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Bringing waiting lists back to the people

Miles Sibley

Last year, we contributed to a National Voices report that looked into people's experiences of being on NHS waiting lists. People talked about a lack of control and an inability to "get on with one's life". Some described "fighting" the system, and described the sense of being in an information vacuum for long periods of time.

  • Hospital waiting lists
  • Communication and administration

Unfortunately, the situation is not going to get better anytime soon. One of the biggest challenges facing the NHS after the Covid crisis is waiting lists. Indeed, half of the general public, according to Ipsos Mori, see “improving waiting times for routine operations” as the top priority in healthcare.

So if we know that these things really matter to patients, why do we make it so hard for them to get good information about waiting lists?

The data is, of course, published. You can get it here, on the website. But it is buried in vast Excel files, with impenetrable layouts and incomprehensible abbreviations. As so often with NHS reporting the data itself is good, but the presentation is a disaster.

Inspired by the National Voices report, we started to think about whether we could improve the situation.

Our challenge to ourselves was “can we create a waiting times dataset that would be up to date, instantly accessible, free to use, and so simple that no training would be required?” The answer, it turned out, was “yes”.

Our waiting list tool takes waiting times for every treatment in every NHS Trust in England and puts it all in one place. It is a huge breakthrough – bringing the data into the light and enabling anyone, at any time, to see how any part of the NHS is performing.

The tool should also be helpful to health professionals. One Head of Elective Care showed us how she had to spend hours downloading NHS England spreadsheets, then manually extracting the data she needed to help manage waiting times. Even this experienced and senior member of staff felt there must be a better way.

GPs, too, could benefit – particularly at the point of referral, when patients are understandably keen to get some idea of how long they might have to wait for treatment. GPs can now see the latest figures for waiting times for any treatment at the click of a mouse. They can easily compare waits at different local Trusts. And one more mouse click prints off a simple “headlines” summary that they can give to patients as a handy aide-memoire.

Waiting list data has not been hidden for all these years for any good practical reason. Our waiting list tool shows that it is entirely feasible to present the data in ways that anyone can understand.

Tools like these can help both patients and professionals, and they can be built quickly and affordably. They should be a basic part of a person-centred NHS.


Miles Sibley is Director at the Patient Experience Library.