Patients will be forced to endure pain, disability and could even see their lives cut short by increasing waiting times for routine operations under measures aimed to cut costs, surgeons have warned.
NHS officials have introduced new limits which mean patients in some parts of the country will be made to wait at least three months for routine surgery, such as hip operations and cardiac procedures.
The Royal College of Surgeons last night attacked the move, raising fears that other parts of the country could follow suite in a desperate attempt to cut costs and push spending into a new financial year.
The measures, which have been introduced in Lincolnshire, mean instead of waiting an average of seven and a half weeks for operations, patients will have to wait at least a month longer before they can have any routine operations. Cancer surgery and emergency cases are excluded from the restrictions.
Other areas have previously discussed introducing such measures, but have held off, after they were met with a backlash from patients groups and surgeons.
The only area which previously tried to bring in a minimum waiting time ditched the policy in November after it was widely condemned.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough clinical commissioning group (CCG) abandoned the plans after just two months having projected they would save £600,000.
But Freedom of Information disclosures reveal that NHS South West Lincolnshire CCG has now introduced such measures.
Professor Neil Mortensen, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, urged health officials to think again, warning that forcing patients to endure ever longer waits would mean conditions would worsen, in some cases cutting lives short.
“Delaying elective treatment unnecessarily not only subjects patients to excessive pain and discomfort, but can also allow certain conditions to deteriorate, becoming life-limiting or even life-threatening,” the senior surgeon warned.
“We recognise the significant financial pressures facing some CCGs,” he said.
“However introducing an arbitrary minimum waiting time for surgery is unlikely to save money in the long term and raises serious professional and ethical issues.”
He urged NHS England to step in and tell the CCG that minimum waiting times were not acceptable.
“We are worried this is the thin end of the wedge, that other areas are likely to follow these measures, in an extremely short sighted attempt to save money in the short term.
“These operations will still happen, it’s just an attempt to push the spending into another year,” Prof Mortensen said.
As a result, too many patients would be left in “unrelenting pain” and misery.
“Some of these situations are appallingly painful,” he said.
The restrictions affect patients due to have operations at United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust, Ramsay Healthcare, and the Orthopaedics & Spine Specialist Hospital.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: “There should be no place in the NHS for minimum waiting times for surgery – which are sure to condemn people in real medical need to additional misery and pain.”
“If you need an operation you are likely to be in a lot of discomfort at the very least and restricted in what you can do. Delaying surgery could cause a condition to worsen and make the operation more difficult. For older people it may threaten their ability to go on living independently – a terrible price for anyone to pay.”
In 2011 then health secretary, Andrew Lansley, banned primary care trusts from imposing minimum waiting times for routine surgery. Wigan Borough CCG and Trafford CCG have said they are considering such moves.
Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said: “These minimum waits for operations will mean patients waiting longer and longer in pain and distress. Given health bosses in Lincolnshire are restricting patient access to timely operations in this way and we know other CCGs have considered this we need an urgent explanation as to why national guidelines have been relaxed to allow this.
“We want a patient centred NHS which is why we these minimum waits rules should be banned and the NHS properly resourced to provide the standard of care patients deserve.”
The CCG refused to say why the policy was introduced last year and whether it expected to make any savings as a result of it.
A spokesman said: “The NHS is funded to provide treatment for patients in line with the NHS Constitution and has a responsibility to ensure public money is spent effectively and efficiently.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “The NHS has always had to live within the budget that parliament allocates and it is unfair if a small number of areas in effect take more than their fair share at the expense of other people’s services. However looking to the year ahead the NHS is now aiming substantially to increase the number of operations, in Lincolnshire and across the country, so treating more patients than ever before.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Patients should not experience undue delay at any stage of their referral diagnosis or treatment. “It is up to clinicians to make decisions about patients’ treatment, and the Government has given the NHS an additional £1.6bn for 2018/19 to support and improve A&E and elective care performance so more patients can be treated within 18 weeks.”