The Covid pandemic has forced many hospitals to cancel operations and allowed waiting lists to grow. With infections still on the rise and winter looming, how is one of England’s flagship hospitals making up for lost time?
Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital is preparing for what it expects to be its busiest winter ever.
The hospital, which performs many specialist operations that other hospitals cannot, has a waiting list of 47,800 patients, which is 40% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
3,900 of them have been waiting for more than a year. Such long waits were previously prohibited, but due to the pandemic, the NHS has stopped fining trusts that exceed this limit.
Some people are still waiting. The number of patients who have been waiting for more than 98 weeks has increased to 172, up from 112 the previous month.
Despite having a full emergency department and fewer beds due to infection control measures, Addenbrooke’s hopes to reduce its waiting lists by performing 500 operations per week, even more than before the pandemic.
Staff have been working longer days and weekends to clear the backlog, but their task is made even more difficult by the fact that as some people wait longer, they become sicker and spend more time in the hospital.
Patients may be difficult to release due to a lack of social care staff or mental health beds.
However, help is on the way: a new 56-bed unit is set to open early next year as part of an ongoing programme to provide five additional wards and 116 beds.
‘They have put me first as a patient’
Vicky Watts, 50, of Southminster, Essex, is suffering from stage four breast cancer.
During the pandemic, she received cancer treatment and a hip replacement operation, but she was told she would have to wait at least two years for the other.
However, Addenbrooke’s was able to move the operation forward by a year, with surgery taking place on Friday.
“The pain can be debilitating, but the hospital has been absolutely incredible.” “They have prioritised me as a patient,” she says.
“Being able to spend time with your family after being unable to do so during the pandemic is massive – massive.”
“What bothers me is having a life and enjoying what little time I have left and making the most of it, rather than being in pain.”
‘Any wait is painful to watch’
Staff are tired, according to James Wheeler, divisional director of surgery and theatres, but the hospital has made “significant progress” in surgery.
“We were able to maintain a lot of cancer services over the last 18 months,” he says.
“However, there will undoubtedly be a large number of patients with non-cancer diagnoses or less urgent diagnoses, all of which are extremely important, that will take us some time to treat and operate on.”
Despite this, Mr Wheeler acknowledges that some people are having to wait longer for treatment.
“Any wait is agonising to witness. All I can say is that we are doing everything we can to get through the backlog of patients “he claims.
He credits the hospital’s ability to ring-fence beds with keeping “elective surgical patients safe.”
However, he admits that balancing planned surgery and emergency cases will be difficult for the hospital as it enters its busiest season.
‘If we play together, we can get through this’
At times, Addenbrooke’s accident and emergency department has been so busy some patients have had to wait outside.
Roland Sinker, chief executive of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, says he is “devastated” that people have to wait at all.
“The challenges we face are more people in need of care, as well as the fact that we’ve had to close more than 70 of our 1,200 beds [due to infection control].”
Mr Sinker is “very concerned” about the upcoming months.
“If we can get the hospital teams, the population, and partners outside the hospital to play together in the same way that we did during Covid,” he says, “I think we can get through this six- to nine-month period.”
The hospital is urging people to “use the right service at the right time” so that it can continue to provide care to those in greatest need.
‘The boosters will save lives’
Addenbrooke’s is also implementing a programme to immunise staff against flu and Covid in order to keep them both safe and productive.
Dr. Joseph Newman, a respiratory registrar at Cambridge University Hospitals, believes that vaccinating its 11,000-strong workforce is “extremely important.”
“Staff shortages were a real issue this time last year, adding to the pressure, so I think keeping everyone fit and healthy is really important,” he says.
“The boosters will save lives and relieve pressure on the NHS. It’s a critical juncture.”