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By British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT)

Tackling the NHS backlog requires innovation and patient centered care

5 min read

There is a vital need for greater collaboration, shared innovation and solutions across the healthcare sector to help policy makers target funding and support best practice.

We are all aware that the Covid-19 pandemic has increased demands and challenges across the health sector, intensifying pressures on resources, beds and the workforce. From social care to GP appointments, diagnostics to treatment and recovery to palliative care.

The government has stated that the waiting list for routine operations, such as hip replacements and cataract surgery, could reach 13 million as more people come forward for treatments were delayed during the pandemic. Therefore, there is a vital need for greater collaboration, shared innovation and solutions across the health sector to help policy makers target funding and support best practice.

As chair of Social Work England and the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, I will be chairing a meeting of the APPG on Health (APHG) next week to explore these issues as a matter of urgency. There will be an opportunity to hear from speakers across the health sector who are making a real difference to the quality of care of patients through collaboration and innovation, including examples of effective cooperation and partnerships between the NHS and the independent sector.

There is no 'quick fix' and we will continue to see the impact of the pandemic on the health sector for many years to come

Currently, most staff within the NHS are grappling with balancing the needs of Covid-19 patients with those awaiting urgent and elective care. On a daily basis clinicians have been taking difficult decisions on whether to delay or cancel routine appointments, resulting in large increases in the number of patients waiting for treatment.

The BMA reported that between April 2020 and June 2021, there were huge drops in the number of referrals, diagnostics and treatments carried out across the NHS. This included nearly 300,000 fewer urgent cancer referrals, 3.66 million fewer elective procedures and 28.35 million fewer outpatient attendances compared with the previous year, in which the service was already overstretched.

There is no doubt that this has resulted in a backlog that will take years to clear, and the NHS will have to tackle this against the continuing backdrop of Covid-19 and growing winter pressures. Clearly, addressing the backlog is an urgent priority for all those in the NHS and policy makers. In fact, the NHS in England will be given an extra £5.4bn over the next six months to respond to the impact of the pandemic and to tackle waiting lists.

Of course, this funding is  welcome but if we are to effectively use these funds we need to learn the lessons from the pandemic, to be innovative where we can and promote efficiency without compromising patient safety or personalised approaches to care.

This includes maximising the use of independent sector providers, who played a key role in ensuring that the NHS was not overwhelmed as the pandemic escalated. Indeed, over 3.2 million NHS treatments were delivered by independent hospitals between the end of March 2020-2021 – all on a not-for-profit basis – as part of the sector’s historic partnership with the NHS.

The cooperation showed by both the NHS and independent providers demonstrated the benefits of mutual collaboration and how they can operate together effectively.  We need to build on these examples of positive partnerships and use this opportunity to make vital changes throughout the health sector if we are to improve the quality of care for all our patients.

Moreover, we know that the current pathways for diagnosis and management of disease were ineffective for many patients prior to the pandemic and now have an opportunity, by using examples of best practice and innovation across the health service, to effectively manage waiting lists, promote professional development and improve patient experience.

At the start of the pathway, healthcare can be made increasingly accessible using local and trusted services such as community pharmacy to redirect patients away from primary care, or to refer them directly into secondary care. Other interventions can also help people avoid hospital visits. For example, mobile screening for lung cancer.

Health innovation now allows for virtual appointments and remote communication between staff and patients. Telephone, video and app consultations can provide convenient appointments and follow-up for patients. They can also support those on waiting lists to share symptom data or increase functional fitness through physiotherapy or dietary advice.

These measures can be adjusted according to patients’ digital and health literacy, and personalised according to need. The Health and Care Bill as well increased emphasis on digital, AI and innovation provide an opportunity to increase access for all.

However, there is no “quick fix” and we will continue to see the impact of the pandemic on the health sector for many years to come.

I am in no doubt that we potentially face one of the most challenging winters the health sector has ever seen.  But the efforts of the health sector over the last eighteen months have shown what is possible and what can be achieved. Therefore, the APPG on Health’s meeting must build on the collaboration, partnerships and innovation that has emerged and help put the sector on the road to recovery.


Lord Patel is a non-affiliated peer. 

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