Shropshire patients face long waits for key NHS tests due to coronavirus delays
Patients are facing long waits for key NHS tests in Shropshire after services were suspended during the Covid-19 crisis.
Record delays for a range of medical tests were logged at trusts in the county in March, as services were put on hold.
Medical experts warn longer waits are an inevitable result of the pandemic and are likely to continue as pressure continues on the NHS as a whole.
NHS trusts provide information on how long people have been waiting for 15 key tests at the end of each month.
The procedures are used to diagnose a wide range of diseases and conditions, including cancers, heart failure, sleep disorders and hearing problems.
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According to NHS rules, after someone is referred for one of the tests, they should have it completed within six weeks.
But NHS England data shows more than 2,000 patients had been kept waiting longer than that in Shropshire at the end of March.
There were delays for MRI scans, ultrasounds – which can detect tumours – and CT scans, which can detect problems such as bone damage and injuries to internal organs.
At Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, which runs Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital, the number kept waiting was 2,003 or 22.4 per cent of those on the waiting list.
The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital (RJAH), near Oswestry, kept 15 people waiting longer than six weeks – 3.4 per cent of those on the waiting list.
For both these trusts this was the highest rate of hold-ups for the month since comparable local records began in 2014.
The national standard is that less than one per cent of patients should wait six weeks or more.
Dr Jeanette Dickson, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said coronavirus will have a heavy impact on certain test waits for the foreseeable future.
She said: “While the NHS will aim to prioritise the patients with the most life-threatening conditions, some with serious illnesses have minor symptoms and so may be missed.
“Although we cannot give definite numbers, it is likely some patients with cancer may have growth of their disease while waiting for a scan, potentially losing their chance of a cure."
Bosses at SaTH say urgent procedures have continued and the next step will be to start to restore some of the urgent services that have been stood down, including access to diagnostics and tests.
Nigel Lee, chief operating officer at the trust, says a group has been established to oversee its ‘restoration and recovery’ programme and to ensure it is done in a considered way, so patients and staff are not put at risk.
The trust is also looking for help from other providers to ensure it meets all the precautionary measures possible, such as social distancing.
He said: “Dealing with coronavirus is the biggest challenge the health service has ever faced and making sure the NHS is still available for everybody needing urgent care has meant an unavoidable knock-on impact for non-urgent services.
“We understand that for many people that has meant they have been unable to access services as they normally would and we thank everyone for their patience and understanding.
“All urgent procedures have continued, with decisions being made on individual clinical needs. Processes are in place to protect our most vulnerable patients and this has been done in line with national guidance.
"We have communicated with GPs and other areas of referral to explain the escalation process for patients whose condition changes and warrants urgent attention.
“As we are now in phase two of the NHS’s response, the next step for us is to start to restore some of the urgent services that have been stood down."
Bosses at RJAH say although routine diagnostic scans were stopped due to the virus, urgent scans have continued to be available.
Eric Hughes, radiology services manager at RJAH, said: “In line with national instructions, we have stopped taking routine diagnostic scans during this period of lockdown – that was in the interest of patient safety but we apologise for the inconvenience it has caused some patients.
“Urgent and essential scans have continued to be available for consultants and GPs.
"Currently we are starting to plan for when we are able to restart routine scanning again and that will resume when we are instructed to do so, and while ensuring the safety of our patients and staff.”
Across England, the number of delays at the end of March shot up to 85,400.
Maggie Hollick knows how anxious waits can be for medical treatment.
In March, the 67-year-old from Belle Vue, Shrewsbury, was told that her cancer operation could not go ahead as the NHS prepared to deal with coronavirus victims.
She had a skin cancer removed from her thigh five years ago and was told it had spread after finding a lump in her groin a few months ago.
Two days before the surgery was scheduled she was told it was cancelled, despite it being deemed urgent.
However a week later she successfully underwent a major operation to remove lymph nodes at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham after Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski intervened with a plea to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Maggie, who is a retired teacher, said: "When I was first told I couldn't have the operation I was distraught.
"They said it could be weeks or months. I thank my lucky stars I actually had it done.
"It's a terrible state for cancer patients to find themselves in. It's such a frightening time anyway.
"There are a lot of people still waiting for operations."
She said she could empathise with the people awaiting medical tests.
Maggie said: "It's such a worrying time. If you are invited in for a test because they think something could be wrong, it's such an anxious time.
"I feel so sorry for them. Waiting is a killer."