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NHS recovery must not leave heart patients behind

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive | British Heart Foundation

3 min read Partner content

The coronavirus pandemic has posed a huge challenge to health systems across the globe. As the government seeks to invoke a 'catch-up' programme for patients left behind in the pandemic, the British Heart Foundation is working to ensure heart patients are made a priority.

For the 7.6 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases across the UK, this is a make-or-break year. Over a quarter of a million heart disease patients are on NHS waiting lists in England, and this number is growing month-on-month. Behind every number is a person anxiously waiting to hear how and when they will be treated.

Widespread staffing issues, pent-up demand, and the Omicron variant present further formidable challenges for exhausted NHS staff. But there is hope. With the actions outlined below, we can ensure the pandemic’s seismic disruption to patient care doesn’t reverse six decades of progress against heart disease.

Prioritise heart disease in elective recovery

The elective recovery plan must be published urgently, clarifying how health workers will be supported to deliver the Government’s target of 30% more elective activity compared to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this Spending Review period.

It’s vital the plan supports heart patients, especially those waiting for a diagnosis.

Waiting lists for a heart ultrasound known as an echocardiogram have reached record levels, with almost 150,000 people in England in the queue. Long delays increase someone’s risk of becoming more unwell or even dying while waiting to hear if they need treatment.

Heart patients must hear how new community diagnostic centres will tackle the echo backlog, helping them get the crucial care they need sooner. They also need clear communication that the NHS is open for them so that ‘hidden’ heart patients who have not yet come forward for care do not become sicker while waiting for pandemic pressures to ease.

Over a quarter of a million heart disease patients are on NHS waiting lists in England, and this number is growing month-on-month

Act on workforce

None of this is achievable without a stronger NHS workforce. Like many specialties, there are significant shortages in the cardiac workforce and these gaps undermine the NHS Long Term Plan and national recovery ambitions.

That’s why the British Heart Foundation, together with a coalition of over 90 organisations, is supporting the cross-party amendment to Clause 35 of the Health and Care Bill requiring independent assessments of workforce planning be regularly published. This amendment is not a panacea for workforce challenges, but it is a necessary precondition for overcoming them. We urge Peers reading this to support the amendment as it progresses through the Lords.

We welcome the Government’s pledge to deliver ‘the biggest catch-up programme in the NHS’s history.’  By prioritising cardiac backlogs and taking bold action on workforce, the Government can ensure heart patients aren’t left behind.

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Read the most recent article written by Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive - Political willpower needed to tackle heart disease crisis