BMA doctors tell of patients being neglected and their condition worsening due to Covid

by BMA Media team

Press release from the BMA.

Location: UK
Published: Sunday 12 July 2020

Doctors tell of patients being neglected and their condition worsening as BMA research indicates millions of patients in England have had surgery and appointments cancelled due to Covid.

Research by the BMA concludes that over a million planned operations and treatments as well as over twenty thousand cancer treatments have been cancelled or delayed between April and the end of June this year because of the pandemic.

The Association’s research also estimates that more than two and a half million first time outpatient appointments were cancelled during the same time period.

The paper, published today, coincides with the BMA’s latest survey of 5,905 doctors in England and Wales, asking about the impact of the pandemic on their patients and their working lives. As part of the survey, they were asked if, within the last week, they had treated patients with conditions at a later stage (e.g. cancer, heart disease) than they would normally expect. A little over 40% said that they had.

Behind this data are the scores of patients whose routine surgery or procedure has been put aside in the rush to reconfigure the NHS to cope with Covid-19. Even worse, doctors know there are those whose illnesses are far more serious than they were, some now beyond cure. 

 The BMA’s Chair of Council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said,

“To make enough capacity to deal with the initial peak of the pandemic, the NHS has had to shut down or significantly reduce many areas of non-Covid care. However, in April, the Health Secretary said that the ‘NHS was open’ and he announced the ‘restoration of other NHS services – starting with the most urgent, like cancer care and mental health support.’

“But the BMA’s research and survey reveal a very different picture; a catastrophic drop in elective procedures, urgent cancer referrals, first cancer treatments and outpatient appointments. The full impact of this drastic reduction in routine NHS care in England is only now emerging.

“Millions of patients living with often life-threatening conditions such as cancer, have had treatment postponed or cancelled and others have not had vital initial assessment and diagnosis for health problems.

“This is the real, but so far hidden, impact of the Covid crisis. Patient safety is being severely compromised not just by the virus itself, but by the knock-on effects of an unprecedented disruption to NHS services.”

 The BMA is now calling on Government to work together with the Association to find a solution to this crisis. Whilst it cannot and will not be solved overnight, the BMA represents doctors across all parts of the NHS and with its scientific and ethical expertise, it can provide valuable guidance and insight to help patients get the care that’s urgently needed

The BMA believes it must be part of the process to ensure the backlog can be managed operationally and done properly to the benefit of patients. We need honesty and transparency from the Government about the real scale of the problem so that workable solutions can be found quickly and the right funding and resourcing put in place.   


Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. 5,905 doctors in England and Wales took part in the survey between 7 and 9 July.
  2. The BMA research found that in April, May and June 2020 in England there were: between 1.32 and 1.50 million fewer general and acute elective admissions than would usually be expected - between 2.47 million and 2.60 million fewer first general and acute outpatient attendances - between 274,000 and 286,000 fewer urgent cancer referrals - between 20,800 and 25,900 fewer patients starting first cancer treatments following a decision to treat - between 12,000 and 15,000 fewer patients starting first cancer treatments following an urgent GP referral.
  3. As part of the BMA tracker survey, doctors were asked, ‘Within the last week, have you seen or treated any patients in the following groups?
    a. With symptoms you believe are a longer-term effect of the patient having had Covid. 29.49% said yes and 49.79%, no.
    b. Presenting with conditions at a later stage (e.g. cancer, heart disease) than you would normally expect. 40.50% said yes and 39.21% said no.
  4. When asked: “Over the last week, what change, if any, have you experienced in the level of demand for non-Covid patient care? 29% said it was back to pre-March level of demand, 37% said there had been a significant increase, but at lower level than pre-March and 16% said a slight increase
  5. How confident are you about your ability to manage patient demand as normal NHS services are resumed?” 16 % of respondents said “not at all confident” and 31% said “not very confident” with regard to their own practice or department. For the local health economy, these figures were 19% and 37% respectively, and for community settings 20% and 41%
  6. When asked, “How confident are you about your ability to manage patient demand if there is a second peak of Covid-19?” 15% were not at all confident, 29% were not very confident and 38% were slightly confident.
  7. The BMA believes the following must be priorities for the Government in addressing the NHS backlog:

Transparency: Comprehensive data on healthcare demand, population health and workforce must be rapidly collated and published to inform planning in the months ahead. This will include up-to-date data around waiting lists as well as the prevalence of certain conditions and health inequalities.

Capacity: The NHS redistributed capacity to care for Covid-19 patients during the peak of the pandemic, but at the expense of other treatments and services. The Government must commit to giving the NHS whatever resources it needs to tackle the backlog as well as the capacity it needs to meet demand in the long-term.

Workforce: Additional physical capacity only works if there are staff to provide care – and the system has so far relied on doctors working above and beyond to meet Covid-19 demand. Efforts must be taken to retain, support and protect the valuable staff who have given their all in fighting the pandemic, prioritising their wellbeing and mental health.

Learning: Services have been overhauled in the response to the crisis, and the NHS must keep the positive changes for the long-term while ditching unnecessary, outdated systems in other areas. A key element of this will rely on IT functionality5

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