More must be done to support the millions of people caught up in the NHS backlog, a patient watchdog has said after a new survey found dwindling confidence in timely access to the health service.
The NHS should employ more staff to support people who are anxiously waiting for care, Healthwatch England said.
Patients should get regular updates, health support and access to physiotherapy while on waiting lists, with medics ensuring they have appropriate pain relief, it said.
A record 7.6 million people are waiting for treatment in England.
A new poll for Healthwatch, shared exclusively with the PA news agency, found that almost a third (32%) of people lack confidence that they can access vital care in a timely way.
The survey, conducted on 2,500 English adults by the polling company Savanta on behalf of Healthwatch England, found that older people and those who are struggling financially were the least confident they would have timely access to services.
People were asked about how confident they were that they would have timely access to 13 different services including A&E, ambulances, non-urgent operations and procedures, GPs, pharmacists, mental health services and dentists.
The poll found:
– Only half (50%) were confident they would be able to access timely out-of-hours GP care
– Some 46% said they were not confident they would get timely access to non-urgent operations and procedures
– 44% said they lacked confidence they would get prompt mental health support
– Two fifths (42%) said they did not believe they would be able to get timely care from daytime GP services
– 39% said they did not think they would be able to get dental care in a timely fashion
– Almost a third (31%) did not think they would be seen quickly in A&E while 30% said they lacked confidence that an ambulance would arrive in a timely way, should the need arise
But overall 31% said they did think they would get timely care and support from NHS services overall.
Healthwatch said that confidence rose among people who had used services in the last six months.
The patient champion said that the poll highlighted health inequalities, with a number of groups expressing less confidence they would be able to access care in a timely fashion.
Only 24% of people aged 65 and over felt they would be able to access care in a timely way while 26% of those from poorer backgrounds felt confident they would have prompt access to services.
Rob Fleay, 52, has been waiting for an appointment with a consultant for over a year following his surgery to remove part of his bowel.
The IT consultant from Derby said that during the waiting period he also struggled to touch base with his GP.
“Over a year after my surgery, I have yet to see a Gastro consultant to understand what this diagnosis means and what ongoing care is required,” he said.
“I have had multiple consultant appointments booked and then cancelled at the last minute by the hospital, often the day before.
“In every case a new appointment was not given, I was just told to wait to receive a letter with a new appointment. Those multiple cancellations made me incredibly anxious.
“I’m not very confident in the NHS. Even getting an appointment at my GP surgery is a nightmare. You are forced to call at 8am but waiting time on the phone is usually around 20 minutes and often you are told that all the slots for the day have gone.”
Louise Ansari, chief executive of Healthwatch England said: “With demand for care likely to rise this winter, the negative perception that the NHS can’t provide timely care needs urgent attention to ensure people do seek medical attention when needed.
“If people are not confident in requesting a referral for treatment or calling an ambulance, they put their health at risk. Delaying medical attention also adds further strain on NHS services.
“People seeking care need to have higher confidence in NHS services, given the hard work of NHS staff and local improvements achieved in many areas, supported by national recovery plans for primary care and urgent and emergency care.
“As the busy winter period for the NHS approaches, we urge healthcare leaders to address the lack of confidence that many people, especially older people and those on lower incomes, have in accessing timely care when they need it.
“Simple steps such as improving patient communication and accurately recording treatment plan details will also help assure people that the NHS is there for them.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “As Healthwatch points out, patients can be confident that they can access the care they need with post-pandemic recovery plans delivering real improvements right across a range of NHS services – category two ambulance response times are an hour faster than in December, the longest waits for treatment have more than halved from their peak and GP practices are seeing 1.3 million more patients every month compared to last year.
“Despite ongoing pressures and the impact of industrial action, it is reassuring to see those who have recently accessed care are the most confident.
“The NHS is continuing to encourage people to come forward for the care they need with symptom spotting campaigns, while staff are also ensuring those on waiting lists receive support, including pain relief and mental health advice.”