Health

CALL or nothing: NHS will tell patients to accept a ‘virtual’ appointment or face long waits

Patients will be forced to accept a virtual NHS appointment or face long waits as part of controversial plans to bring down waiting lists.

NHS bosses say the use of phone and video consultations will become much more common as part of a push to clear waits of more than 18 months by next April.

As part of the plans, trusts with the biggest backlog of outpatient appointments — like post-operation follow-ups — will be paired with hospitals with spare capacity.

But patients in England will be told they can see a doctor sooner if they accept a remote appointment. 

Patients groups warned it was ‘extremely dangerous’ to ‘palm people off’ with virtual appointments. There are concerns remote consultations increase the risk of doctors missing signs of serious illnesses. 

Campaigners say this is particularly true for some vulnerable patients, like those with dementia, who may struggle to communicate remotely. 

The NHS backlog for routine treatment grew from 6.4million to 6.6million in May, the latest month with data, meaning one in eight people in England are now waiting for elective care, often in pain

In a bid to bring down the number of longest waiters, hospitals have also been told to prioritise first appointments over those waiting for routine second consultations.

Under the NHS’ Covid recovery plan, 18-month waits are to be virtually eliminated by next spring and no patient will wait longer than one year by March 2025. 

Nearly HALF of patients with ‘red flag’ cancer symptoms put off seeing GP for half a YEAR — even if they’re coughing up blood 

Half of adults in the UK who have a possible cancer symptom do not contact their GP within six months of spotting a change to their body, a poll has revealed.

And 45 per cent of people who experience a ‘red flag’ cancer symptom, including coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss and a new or unusual lump, did not contact their GP within half a year, according to a YouGov survey for Cancer Research UK.

Being diagnosed early can help people survive cancer but the chances of this happening reduce significantly if people don’t tell their doctor about unusual changes to their health or possible cancer symptoms.

When bowel cancer is diagnosed at stage one, its earliest stage, more than nine in 10 people will survive it for five years or more, compared with one in 10 when diagnosed at stage four, the latest stage.

Campaigner Dame Deborah James, who died from bowel cancer at the age of 40 in June, urged people to check their poo to help increase earlier diagnoses.

The shocking figures come as people across the country continue to struggle to get GP appointments.

A major NHS-backed survey last month found half of sick Britons have not seen a GP in a year, with most saying they find it too difficult to book an appointment.

Critics described the lack of access as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that will lead to vital diagnoses being missed.

Sir James Mackey, NHS England’s elective recovery adviser, said a focus on digital will give options to those who face the longest waits. 

Sir James told the Health Service Journal: ‘We will be pairing up organisations so that organisations with capacity can help those with the biggest challenges, from a virtual outpatient perspective.’

Those waiting for their first outpatient appointments, such as advice and diagnosis, follow-up reviews after procedures and specialist advice for a long-term condition, are included in the NHS backlog, which stands at 6.6million.

But doctors say up to a fifth of their outpatient appointments didn’t need to be seen in-person. 

It comes as par of a wider move to digital to free up capacity.

The 2019 NHS Long Term plan set out that a third of face-to-face outpatient appointments would become digital by 2024 to save time and resources. 

Sir Jim added: ‘There still is a lot to work through [on virtual outpatients], we’re going to be testing the concept… We need to work through how all the wiring and plumbing needs to work. 

‘For example, what happens if the patient needs a diagnostic locally, having seen a clinician virtually in another part of the country?

‘It would be great also to try and stimulate more of a consumer drive on this – encouraging patients to ask about virtual outpatients when the waits locally may be too long, so they don’t just think they have to go to their local hospital.

‘I think this could really help shift the model if we can get it right.’

Dennis Reed, director of Silver Voices, a campaign group for the over-sixties, told The Telegraph: ‘I think it’s extremely dangerous to try to palm people off with virtual appointments.

‘You are talking here about people with serious conditions, whether that is suspected cancer, or in pain waiting for a hip operation, or a knee replacement.

‘These are conditions where you need to see a specialist face-to-face, you need “hands on” medicine to examine the physical problem, to see the problems with mobility and so forth.’

He warned patients waiting for hospital appointments had a GP consultation so another virtual consultation further delayed their care.

After a patient has their first outpatient appointment, they are removed from the NHS waiting list.

So, the approach may be ‘an attempt to massage the figures’ to bring down the number of those waiting for appointments, Mr Reed said. But this risks ‘forgetting what the patients actually need’, he added.

Latest data shows a record 6.6million people in England are waiting for routine hospital appointments. 

The figure spiralled from 4.2million in March 2020 as hospitals focused on treating the influx of Covid patients, battled staff absences and helped with the vaccine rollout.

NHS forecasting from February shows that the problem will get worse before it gets better. The figure is expected to peak at 10.7million in March 2024 — at which point one in five people in England would be in the queue. 

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