Patients waiting months for key NHS tests due to coronavirus delays
Patients are facing long waits for NHS tests after services were suspended due to Covid-19.
Record delays for a range of medical tests were logged at trusts across the Black Country and Staffordshire in March.
Medical experts say the longer waits are an inevitable result of the pandemic and are likely to continue.
NHS trusts provide information on how long people have been waiting for 15 key tests at the end of each month, including cancers and heart failure.
When someone is referred for one of the tests, they should have it completed within six weeks. But data shows 3,115 people across the Black Country and Staffordshire had been kept waiting longer at the end of March.
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At University Hospital North Midlands Trust the number kept waiting was 1,167 or 8.5 per cent of those on the list.
The Royal Wolverhampton Trust kept 736 people waiting – 15 per cent of the waiting list. A total of 796 – or nine per cent – were kept waiting more than six weeks at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust. At Dudley Group NHS Trust, 349 people were kept waiting, seven per cent.
Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust kept 67 people waiting six weeks or more – which was a five year high for the trust at two per cent. It is the highest rate of hold-ups since comparable records began in 2014.
Hospital chiefs across the region have said their "main focus" has been on coronavirus patients but that people with life-threatening conditions and urgent procedures have still been prioritised.
Bosses have said they understand people are concerned, but have reassured that the most urgent cases are still being made a priority.
Many trusts have said they will be increasing their services in the coming weeks as the pressure of the pandemic eases slightly.
Gwen Nuttall, chief operating officer at the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, said: "Throughout the pandemic we have aimed to prioritise patients with the most life-threatening conditions and urgent procedures have continued.
"We understand that for many this has meant that people have not been able to access some of our services in the same way as usual. This is due to measures the NHS had to take in response to the Covid-19 peak to keep our staff and patients safe during this time.
"The Trust is working on a recovery plan to restore more services in the coming months. We are also looking to ensure that some of the changes we have made remain in place, such as telephone consultations.
Diane Wake, chief executive of the Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust, said: "The NHS has been at the forefront of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic caring for very poorly patients who tested positive for Covid-19.
"Regulatory rules around patient waiting times for routine work were suspended to enable the NHS to deal safely with all urgent and emergency patients.
"In line with national guidance we cancelled all non-urgent procedures and planned operations, including routine diagnostic testing, from March 18 2020 to enable our staff to focus their efforts on this terrible virus. Urgent procedures and tests have continued, and decisions have been made based on individual clinical risk and needs.
"We understand for many this has meant that they have not been able to access services in the same way as usual, and we thank them for their understanding.
"Moving forwards, all urgent services will be restored by the end of this month and there are plans to increase our ability to perform planned cases.
"The Trust will also be resuming routine diagnostic tests by June 15 at the maximum capacity possible allowing for safe social distancing."
Eight-year-old Finley Hill from Belbroughton has been undergoing treatment during the pandemic.
The schoolboy was diagnosed with rare immune system disorder familial HLH, which causes damaged and enlarged organs. He successfully underwent life-saving stem cell treatment six months ago but is still regularly visiting the hospital for check-ups and treatment.
His mother Jo said they have experienced no delays – but added she was aware some non-urgent procedures were being postponed.
She said: "Nothing has been delayed for us. The only thing that's really different to my knowledge is for the non-urgent patients. It's more to protect them from coming to the hospital rather than the staff not being able to do it. So many people are vulnerable - it's about keeping the numbers in hospital down.
"The only thing that has changed for us is we normally go to the clinic on Tuesday and Friday and it's first come first served so we normally get there nice and early. But now they are doing staggered time slots so everyone is not going in at the same time.
"We did have an appointment recently but because Finn had the same one in March we agreed to cancel that ourselves.
"Finn is really good. We're still going to the hospital and getting medications but it's six months since he had his stem cell donor now. He would be able to go back to school if everything was normal. We're getting on fine with lockdown because we've been doing it six months rather than the nine weeks everyone else has had. And all his mates are also doing it now too!"
Dr Matthew Lewis, medical director at Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, added: “For the last two months our focus, along with colleagues across the country, has been on caring for our Covid-19 patients.
“During this challenging time we have continued to provide care for those with life-threatening illnesses through our emergency department, along with patients who have cancer and other urgent conditions. We have also continued to conduct outpatient clinics, using telephone and video consultation where possible to reduce the need for patients to attend the hospital
“We appreciate that patients are worried, not just because of the risks of catching Covid-19 but also because of other health concerns.
“From next week we are increasing the number of services that are available to our patients, including diagnostic tests, urgent operations, and routine procedures, including joint replacements."
Paul Bytheway, chief operating office at University Hospital North Midlands Trust, which runs Stafford County Hospital, said: “We have been working hard to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and ensure the safety and quality of our services for all patients. At the beginning of the outbreak we took significant steps to ensure we had the resource and capacity to deliver care to the increase in patients being admitted with Covid-19 (coronavirus).
"This included cancelling all non-urgent appointments and where possible appointments have been offered using remote services such as a video or phone consultation.
“Just like the rest of the NHS, our number one priority for the last few months has been ensuring that all those who need urgent care– not just those with coronavirus – have been able to get it when they need it. We have continued to provide all urgent care and cancer operations where we have safely been able to do so and have asked patients to attend hospital only when it is really necessary.
“We have now started to gradually bring back some services, but only where that can be done safely; respects social distancing and won’t place too big a demand on resources such as essential medications and PPE.
“We apologise to our patients who have experienced delays accessing tests and procedures to diagnose conditions but would like to reassure them that we are doing all we can to ensure speedy and safe diagnosis, treatment and care of all our patients.”
Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust did not respond to requests for comment.