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Hospital waiting lists

People waiting for diagnosis, care or treatment are struggling to maintain their normal daily activities, such as work, relationships and caring roles. We are advocating for better support and clearer action for patients whilst they wait.

Our Stance

Waiting for treatment or diagnosis over a prolonged period often causes a decline in health, with worsening mental health and secondary conditions arising due to the lack of timely care. This impact hits harder the longer people are waiting for care, and with the greater experience they have of health inequalities. This type of treatment is often referred to as elective care because despite it including care such as cancer surgery, it is planned in advance and not something that would need immediate, emergency treatment. 

While we know the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated waiting lists, the NHS has not met waiting time targets since 2016, due to an ageing population, more people living with more complex conditions, and much lower government funding increases since 2010, among other issues.  

We believe the government and the NHS must take decisive action to stop elective waiting lists continuing to rise and help people remain stable while waiting. Its elective care recovery plan must include a strategy to discover how badly people are being affected by the waiting list, and action to provide meaningful interim support. The current choice-based approach of allowing people to choose from five hospitals in which to receive treatment is positive but risks widening health inequalities if people who are digitally excluded, have caring responsibilities and/or cannot afford transport are not supported to exercise the choice on offer. 

The government and NHS must also find a resolution to the ongoing NHS workforce disputes and do better to coordinate the care of people who are on multiple waiting lists.  

We also know between a quarter and a half of people do not receive diagnostic tests within the recommended six-week period, with variation dependent on the test needed. Waiting for tests can further delay the onset of treatment and must also be considered by the Government when reviewing NHS spending especially on expensive equipment. 

Trust in the reliability of our collective safety net, the NHS, is now stretched to breaking point. Communication and preventative action are essential to ensure people know their referral for tests or treatment is in the system and they know how long they might wait for care.  

The government must also make elective waiting times a cross-departmental priority so it can offer better support to people who are waiting, whether this be through self-management of their health, social care, or employment and extended statutory sickness support.  

Our work 

We work with our members and people with lived experience of health conditions and disabilities to better understand people’s experiences of waiting for elective care, and to identify ways to improve it. 

We are working with the NHS, system leaders and government to ensure that the needs of all are considered in elective care planning. This includes advocating for everyone to have a choice of treatment provider regardless of where they live, income or digital exclusion. We are also engaging on how to improve care for people on multiple waiting lists.  

Much of our influencing work is underpinned by two key pieces of work Timely Access to Care: Principles for Recovery (November 2021) and Patient: Noun, Adjective (October 2020).  

These papers, developed in collaboration with our membership, advocate for a whole system approach to managing elective care waits, alongside openness and transparency with the public on elective waiting times and what support they can access while waiting.  

Our Asks  

  1. Co-production: We are asking the government and system leaders to ensure waiting list solutions are co-produced, inclusive and clearly show how they will tackle health inequalities. It is those experiencing inequalities who are the most likely to be the most heavily affected by waiting a long time for treatment.
  2. Communication: Transparency and clear communication are essential, this ranges from being honest about waiting times, signposting to where people can get support while waiting, and publishing data on waiting times, cancellations and referrals that can help people understand how long they as individuals will have to wait.
  3. Use the right resources: We urge the government, integrated care systems and local authorities to use the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE) to help support people who are waiting.
  4. Media: We urge the media to broaden the discussion on waiting times to include the individual stories behind the headlines so the narrative is person-centred, not led solely by numbers. 

Work with us

If this is a topic that is of interest to you and you would like to explore how we might contribute our insights and expertise to your work, we would love to hear from you. We offer consultancy and can design focus groups, roundtables, coaching and workshops to organisations who share our vision for more person-centred and equitable health and care. You can find out more here.

This page was last reviewed in December 2023.