Healthwatch England publish research impact of NHS waiting times

Healthwatch England's research looks at how the backlog of 5.7 million patients is impacting the lives of those waiting.

How long are people actually waiting for care? 

The latest performance figures show that the most typical waiting time is 11 and a half weeks to start treatment.

Of the 2,500 people Healthwatch England spoke with, nearly one in ten (8%) reported waiting for more than two years to receive care. This is still far too many, given the impact waiting can have on someone’s mental and physical health, but is lower than many may think.

If people hear about long waiting times they may see no point in seeking out a crucial diagnosis or much-needed treatment because they fear they will never be seen anyway or feel they are ‘burdening’ the NHS further. This risks creating even bigger problems for patients and the NHS.


NHS England recognised early on in the pandemic that improving communication with patients on waiting lists would be crucial. With the help of key partners, they produced a guide to good communications for hospitals to use when contacting those waiting for care.

However, it is clear from what people have told us that implementation of this guidance falls seriously short. As a result, people on waiting lists are feeling lost and alone.

Healthwatch England has made a series of recommendations to address these issues.

Healthwatch England recommendations

Fix the communications:

  • Implement the guide to good communications.
  • Put regular updates in place for patients and families so people don’t feel forgotten.
  • Make it easy for patients to update the NHS when there are changes in their condition.
  • Don’t force people to go through already burdened GP practices to seek updates on their treatment.
  • Recruit admin staff to manage lists better.

Provide more support services:

  • Use some of the money for the backlog to increase support for people while they wait, like specialist pain management, physiotherapy and mental health support.
  • Work with Healthwatch and the voluntary sector to properly understand how the NHS could expand support services even more, to help people survive waiting.
  • Where patients are offered quick treatment at specialist hubs, ensure no one is excluded from this option. This means providing transport and help with accommodation for carers and relatives.  

Structural recommendations:

  • The Government should consider widening statutory sick pay thresholds to help those struggling to work due to longer than usual waits.
  • Continue to provide dedicated funding for discharge processes to help get people out of hospital faster and with the right recuperation support, freeing up beds for new patients.
  • Use the clinical review of standards to develop processes to limit anxiety for patients waiting in silence and provide better data for hospitals to manage demand.

Find out more

To read more about the research visit the Healthwatch England website.