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Faster progress is needed to tackle heart care waits

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive | British Heart Foundation

3 min read Partner content

Long waits for heart care put people at higher risk of avoidable heart attacks, disabling heart failure and even premature death

We continue to see extremely long lists of people waiting for potentially lifesaving care. Latest analysis shows the heart care waiting list rose to more than 408,000 at the end of January 2024 in England, even though the overall NHS waiting list fell.

The cardiac waiting list is 75 per cent larger than in February 2020, meaning that hundreds
of thousands more people are facing agonising waits for time sensitive heart care.

Heart care can’t wait
There aren’t just more people waiting − they are also waiting longer. This is taking a huge emotional and physical toll on them and their loved ones, every day. 

Latest figures show that 40 per cent of people on the heart care waiting list were waiting longer than the maximum target of 18 weeks at the end of January 2024 in England. And over 10,000 people have been waiting over a year for heart tests or treatment. 

Such significantly long waits would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In February 2020, just 28 people waited over a year for their cardiac care.

Every service delivering vital heart care has been severely impacted by the pandemic

Extreme delays at every stage
Disruption isn’t limited to elective care. Although there have always been waiting lists, every service delivering vital heart care has been severely impacted by the pandemic and subsequent persistent pressure.

Even people having medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes are waiting far too long for ambulances and lifesaving treatment. 

We fear this is having terrible consequences. Recent BHF analysis found that after decades of progress in reducing the rate of premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in England, we have seen a sustained three-year rise.

While many factors will have contributed to this reversal, including Covid-19 infection, it is likely that the unrelenting pressure on NHS heart care services has played a part.

Making heart care a priority
So what can be done?

We know the scale of the challenge is vast. We have an ageing and growing population, and the prevalence of many risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as obesity and high blood pressure, remains stubbornly high. 

Politicians have taken note. The government’s interim report on the Major Conditions Strategy recognised the urgency needed to address cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, Labour has pledged to reduce deaths from heart attack and stroke by 25 per cent over the next decade. 

But the NHS needs more support at a much faster pace to meaningfully address this heart care crisis. 

There’s a lot of ground to cover, but politicians would do well to look first at the severe workforce shortages across the NHS.

The government’s NHS Long Term Workforce Plan was a welcome commitment, but we need to see sustainable funding to put this plan into action. Funding announced at the Spring Budget to help the NHS modernise is positive, but this alone will fail to solve wider drivers that contribute to long waiting times for heart care. Specific plans and targeted investment to address the gaps in cardiac staffing would help patients get the care they need more quickly. 

The right action at the right time could help relieve the enormous pressure on the NHS, grow the economy, and most importantly, help more people to live healthier, longer lives. And that’s something we can’t wait any longer for.

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