England’s top doctor has called on the NHS to use more technology and innovation to reduce the thousands of unnecessary outpatient appointments carried out every day.
NHS England medical director Professor Stephen Powis said health leaders should embrace technology such as Skype, apps and online tools so patients can avoid hospital visits and time off work and school – while also saving the NHS millions.
It comes as the latest performance statistics from NHS England showed more than 550,000 patients had been waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment, including 3,156 patients left waiting at least a year for hospital treatment by September.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the figures, along with others showing increases in A&E attendances, admissions and waiting times during October, were evidence of a healthcare system “buckling under the strain”.
Tom Sandford, director of RCN England, said the figures showed more than 3,000 people waiting beyond a year for treatment, too often in pain and discomfort.
“No one should be waiting this long, yet the number of patients on the waiting list has grown 78 per cent in a year,” he said.
Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “With over 550,000 patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment, often in pain and distress, ministers cannot continue ducking their responsibilities towards bringing constitutional waiting time standards back under control.
"There wasn’t a penny extra for hospitals this winter in the Budget, yet ministers are quickly ratcheting up uncosted promises from the NHS budget over the next five years.”
An NHS England spokeswoman said: “The NHS continues to look after an increasing number of people who need our care.
“Going into winter, it’s important that local authorities and hospitals work together to deploy the targeted extra funding for social care to help people get home as soon as possible.”
Prof Powis said the NHS had evolved and innovated to meet the changing needs of patients over the past 70 years, but it was “crucial” that it now looks at how it interacts with patients so it continues to provide the best care.
In his foreword to a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), he said many of the 118 million outpatient appointments each year were unnecessary.
“The outpatient system is older than the NHS and the time has come to grasp the nettle and use tech and other innovations to improve patients’ experience and care,” he said.
The report said outpatient appointments account for 85 per cent of hospital activity, excluding A&E, and demand was outstripping UK population growth.
It said outpatient appointments in England have doubled over the last decade to 118 million a year, but one in five potential appointments is cancelled or reported as “did not attend”, with the majority of cancellations instigated by the hospital.