NHS waiting lists rise after doctors’ hours cut by eu red tape
Hospital waiting times have begun to rise again after years of decline following the introduction of European rules on junior doctors’ working hours.Waiting times in the NHS had been dropping since the 1990s but the rules limiting junior doctors to a 48-hour week, which were implemented last August, had reversed the trend.
Thousands more patients were now waiting longer than 18 weeks for surgery because of eu red tape.
Ministers were seeking to renegotiate Britain’s position on the European Working Time Directive, including a possible opt-out for NHS staff. The Royal College of Surgeons carried out the first comprehensive analysis of how the directive had affected waiting times.
According to the research, the proportion of NHS patients having to wait longer than the 18-week target for non-emergency surgery such as hip replacements had almost doubled from 1.5 per cent 18 months ago to nearly three per cent in March this year.
Waiting times reached an all-time low at the end of 2008, with patients waiting just a few weeks for surgery on average.
However, since the EU directive cut junior doctors’ hours from 56 to 48 per week, these gains had been wiped out, the Royal College said.
According to data from the Department of Health, the number of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks — from GP referral to being treated as an inpatient — fell steadily from April 2007, when almost 34,000 people were waiting, to 8,674 in December 2008.
The figure remained stable at about 10,000 until June 2009, just before the new rules came in, when the rise began.
In March this year, it had risen to 17,515, a level last seen in September 2007.
John Black, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said the increase was predictable.
“If you have the same number of patients, no more doctors and ask them to work less then it is inevitable that the time available for elective procedures will reduce and waiting lists grow,” he said.
Almost two thirds of consultants now frequently operated without assistants because departments were so stretched.
Mr Black said most European countries had bypassed the legislation by either not monitoring compliance or, as in Germany and Holland, finding ways around the directive.
“We look forward to this happening in the UK,” he said.
Sir Richard Thompson, the new president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the directive had been a “complete disaster” for both patient care and the quality of training for doctors.
“We are not providing the service or the training that we require,” he said. “I cannot overemphasise the damage to service provision and to training.”
According to the survey, 80 per cent of consultant surgeons and two thirds of surgical trainees said patient care had deteriorated since the directive was implemented.
Dr Matt Jameson-Evans, a spokesman for Remedy UK, a junior doctors campaign group, said the impact of the directive on services was inevitable.
“Patients are simply not being treated by as many doctors as before,” he said. “A second consequence of this and equally important is that doctors are not receiving as much training as they were and this has serious implications for the future quality of care.”
The Royal College of Surgeons has argued for an opt-out to allow trainees to work up to 65 hours per week because they were not getting enough practical experience on a 48-hour week.
The Coalition has abolished the 18-week target, saying it was not backed by evidence that it benefited patients.
Dr Mark Porter, the chairman of the British Medical Association’s consultants committee, said the drive for cuts within the NHS was also a factor in the rise in waiting times.
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