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One of the biggest challenges facing the NHS after the COVID-19 pandemic is waiting lists. The Patient Experience Library has launched a new tool that allows anyone to look up waiting times for treatment at NHS trusts, using data sourced from NHS England. Any NHS patient or staff member can look up waiting times for treatment at their local hospital and can compare waiting times of up to ten trusts in a single search. This introduces a new level of visibility and insight into the capacity and performance of the NHS through a free, user-friendly tool.

What we found is that being on a waiting list is fundamental to people’s perceptions of quality of care

According to Ipsos Mori, half the population see ‘improving waiting times for routine operations’ as the top priority in health care. Last year, The Patient Experience Library worked with National Voices and Care Opinion on a report that looked more deeply into the experience of patients waiting for care. What we found is that being on a waiting list is fundamental to people’s perceptions of quality of care, and it has a considerable impact on each patient’s quality of life. In this report, people who had been on waiting lists talked about being in an information vacuum for long periods of time. This left them with a feeling of ‘a lack of control’, and an inability to ‘get on with life’. Others described a sense that they were ‘fighting the system.’

Waiting list data is, of course, published on the NHS website. But the data is presented in a way that perfectly matches the Health Foundation’s description of NHS data that is ‘hard to locate online with multiple spreadsheets to choose from and large Excel workbooks to download and navigate’.

Things are not much easier for NHS staff than they are for patients. One of the heads of elective care who works at a large metropolitan NHS trust showed us how staff access this buried data. After downloading an NHS England dataset, she had to unlock a series of hidden worksheets within an Excel spreadsheet and then spend hours manually extracting the data that she needed. Even this experienced and senior member of staff felt that there must be a simpler, better way.

Anyone involved in quality improvement knows that the data that has the best chance of being used must be accurate, easy to find, and clearly presented.

This point has been well made by the BMJ, whose Using Data for Improvement guidance says that data should be ‘displayed transparently so that all staff, service users, and patients and families or carers can access them and understand how the service is performing.’

Tired of the monthly struggle to work out what on earth was going on with waiting lists, we decided to do something about it. We asked ourselves whether we could create a dataset that would be up to date, instantly accessible, free to use, and so simple that no training would be required. As it turns out, the answer to this question is yes.

Our waiting list tool takes waiting times for every treatment in every NHS Trust in England and puts them all in one place. It brings this data into the light and enables anyone, at any time, to see NHS waiting times. The data is presented in a table written in plain language, and describes a number of factors including how many people have begun treatment, how many are waiting for treatment and the percentage of people being seen within 18 weeks. It uses graphs to show the number of people who have begun treatment, the median waiting time over 52 weeks, and allows users to make statistical comparisons for up to 10 trusts.

An image illustrating a waiting list search on the Patient Experience Library
A quick search shows that, as at 16 June 2021, 2,755 patients were on the waiting list for gastroenterology treatment at Oxford University Hospitals Trust, where 83% of patients are receiving treatment within 18 weeks of initial referral. Source: The Patient Experience Library

Tools like these can help both patients and professionals to see how trusts are performing on waiting times. They can be built quickly and affordably. They should be a basic part of an NHS looking to integrate services – and integrate quality improvement.

Further reading

The Bedpan: Waiting times, not care inequalities, are the public’s priority post-pandemic – Alastair Mclellan

Patient Noun Adjective: understanding the experience of waiting for care – National Voices publication

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