NHS patients in England who have been waiting the longest for treatment will be offered the option to travel to a hospital in a different part of the country if it means they could be seen sooner.
From today, any patient who has been waiting longer than 40 weeks and doesn't have an appointment scheduled within the next 8 weeks will be contacted by their hospital. Patients will be asked to submit their details, including how far they are willing to travel — 50 miles, 100 miles, or nationally — so that NHS teams can identify whether any alternative hospitals have the capacity to see them sooner.
NHS England said that up to 400,000 eligible patients — about 5% of the overall waiting list — will be invited to apply for consideration under the scheme. It urged patients not to contact their GP practice or hospital but to wait for a letter, text, or email.
"In some instances, the patient's request will be uploaded to the NHS' innovative hospital matching platform — the Digital Mutual Aid System — to see if NHS or independent sector providers elsewhere in the country can take on their care," highlighted NHS England.
If no alternative hospital was found within 8 weeks of starting the process, the patient would remain with their current provider where they would maintain their position on the waiting list.
"Some patients will not be eligible if their clinical condition is too complex, making it inappropriate to travel," health bosses emphasised.
Record High Elective Care Waiting Lists
The NHS elective care backlog is at an all-time high. There were 7.75 million people waiting to start treatment at the end of August, up from 7.68 million in July. And a recent analysis by the Health Foundation suggested this figure could top 8 million by next summer.
Steve Barclay, England's Health and Social Care Secretary, said "empowering" people to choose where and when they receive their treatment would help tackle waiting lists and improve access to NHS care.
NHS England Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard said: "Whether a patient's care moves to the next town or somewhere further away, it is absolutely right that we make the most of available capacity across the country to continue to reduce the backlogs that have inevitably built up due to the pandemic and provide the best possible service for patients."
Not a Magic Bullet
Responding to the plan, NHS Providers stressed that giving patients an option to travel for their treatment was "not a magic bullet". Its deputy chief executive, Saffron Cordery, said: "Long waiting times are a symptom of years of severe workforce shortages and underinvestment in the NHS."
Louise Ansari, chief executive of patient group Healthwatch England, welcomed the move but called for patients to receive financial support, such as help with transport and accommodation costs. "Otherwise, this option risks deepening health inequalities by only providing solutions to people who can afford to contribute towards the additional costs of travel," she said.