NHS figures show 100,000 more children are waiting to be seen by specialist doctors than a year ago – the highest number since records began. Dr Mike McKean, vice-president of policy at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said that in some cases the wait could lead to death.
And delays have a “profound” or “devastating” impact on young people’s quality of life.
He said: “Children and babies suffer physical and mental damage while waiting for surgery.
“We do everything we can to keep them alive, but I know of cases where these delays have contributed to the deaths of children.”
Dr. McKean said he knows of children with congenital heart problems who have become so frail that they are confined to wheelchairs. He also knows children whose tonsils or adenoids swell to the point where breathing is difficult. Children with scoliosis – severe and progressive curvatures of the spine – suffer pain and disability while waiting for back surgery. Others face long delays in surgery to correct conditions that cause hearing loss.
Experts say that delays contribute to worsening conditions and halting mental and physical development during a critical period of life. Many children are no longer able to attend school because of their conditions.
Dr McKean said: “These delays have a huge impact on a child’s life, their education and their parents who may have to give up work to care for them. Paediatricians work very hard but without further support the workforce will struggle to close these delays”.
Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of the RCPCH, said: “Ministers must take urgent action to prioritize care and seize every opportunity to innovate and transform care.
“A long wait is unacceptable for any patient. But for children and young people, the wait can be disastrous, as many treatments have to be given according to a certain age or stage of development. It is not the same as for adults. If you miss the right window to treat a child or wait too long, the consequences can be irreversible.”
NHS figures show more than 12,000 children were left in limbo for more than a year for treatment. At the end of April 2022, the number of people waiting to start treatment at a consultant was 350,969. Half of the young people are waiting for more than 12 weeks.
Only 65.4 per cent of patients were seen within 18 weeks, despite the NHS target of 92 per cent. 16-year-old Mark Howe, a keen athlete, developed a curvature of the spine 15 months ago. He can no longer play the sports he used to enjoy and was in so much pain that he had to miss school.
He was diagnosed with scoliosis by a private consultant a year ago, but due to a lack of NHS appointments he was not followed up and the curvature became much more severe. Last week, he was given a date for surgery seven months later – almost two years after his diagnosis.
His unnamed father, who lives with his son in Exeter, said: “He is in a lot of pain at times and has had to miss school as a result. It prevented him from doing what he loved. It was a fight all the way to get him the help he needed.”
Last December, 16-year-old Nako was remotely diagnosed by a therapist with spinal curvature due to Covid restrictions.
He waited seven months to see a consultant and by then his back had gotten worse. He was prescribed one session of remedial physical education, charging to be done at home. He can no longer sit or walk for long periods of time.
Nako, from Islington, north London, said: “I get really tired and if I walk for too long it hurts. One of my biggest problems is sitting and some GCSE exams last an hour and a half so this one really hurt.
“I could have had the surgery a lot earlier and I feel less confident around my friends because of the shape of my back.
“I don’t want to be in public often. I try to control it by standing as straight as possible, but I have to stop something – for example, I haven’t gone swimming in a while because I’m so embarrassed. “
Caroline Freedman, personal trainer and author of The Scoliosis Handbook, an exercise book for sufferers, said: ‘It’s heartbreaking to think how much pain these children are in, both physically and mentally, and how it affects their families.”
Ms Friedman, who has undergone three scoliosis operations, added: “While these children are waiting, some of their disease progresses. With scoliosis, once the spine curves over 50 degrees, it can fall like a tree and can affect the heart and lungs “.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are putting a record £39 billion of extra funding into health and care services over the next three years to close the gap from Covid and deliver the biggest catch-up program in the history of the NHS.
“We are working to increase the capacity of elective and diagnostic services for adults and children to ensure that all patients can get the care they need as quickly as possible.
“This includes the roll-out of new surgery centers and up to 160 community diagnostic centers across the country – with 91 already open and one million additional scans. Since January, we’ve cut the two-year NHS wait by two-thirds, meaning thousands more people. have now gained access to vital operations and procedures.’
An estimated 117,000 patients died while waiting for NHS care last year, new figures show. A Freedom of Information request to every NHS trust in England by the Labor Party found that 67 trusts identified 34,896 deaths.
Labor said extrapolating the number across all trusts would put the death toll at 116,667, double the annual number of deaths on the waiting list before the pandemic.