The NHS waiting game

Being unwell is stressful at the best of times but waiting to receive your treatment can make it even worse, especially if you’re faced with waiting longer than you expected!

In 2015 NHS waiting lists were at their highest they have been in seven years with 3.4 million people waiting for their treatment, with a target waiting time of 18 weeks. In the same year over 6,000 patients waited at least a year for treatment and in the worse cases they were waiting three years. 1

You could have to wait up to 18 weeks for your treatment

Did you know that the NHS waiting time for non-urgent treatment is 18 weeks?

The maximum waiting time for non-urgent consultant-led treatments is 18 weeks from the day your appointment is booked through the NHS e-Referral Service, or when the hospital or service receives your referral letter.” – NHS, 2017

Episode 3, series 2 of BBC Two’s ‘Hospital’ explores the human stories behind the headlines. One of the stories focuses around St Mary’s Hospital experiencing one of its longest ever waiting time breaches. During the episode a patient with a serious mental health issue has to wait 29 hours for a psychiatric bed to become available.3

All staff can do while they wait is keep her safe in Room Q, the designated space for people in crisis, while the psychiatric liaison team battles to find the specialist care she needs. Spaces are limited and demand is high.” – BBC Two, 2017

The British Medical Association (BMA) says that mental health services in the UK are at breaking point

A report by the BMA has found that in 2016/2017, 5,876 adults were sent out of their local area for mental health treatment to cope with high demand. This was a rise of around 40% on previous years (2014/2015).4

In one case a mental health patient from Somerset had to travel over 500 miles to a facility located in the highlands to get out of hours care.    

NHS consultant psychiatrist and mental health policy lead of the BMA’s consultants committee Dr Andrew Molodynski said:

The practice of sending patients with severe mental health problems to beds hundreds of miles away from their home and families has become endemic in the NHS.

The government needs to get a handle on this situation because patients are being routinely failed by a system at breaking point, with tragic consequences.

Being sent long distances for treatment has an impact on patients’ care and recovery.

The NHS are looking to improve mental health services at a compromise to waiting times for non-urgent treatments

In March of this year Simon Stevens, Chief Executive for NHS England announced that NHS waiting times for common operations such as knee or hip surgeries are likely to grow considerably as hospitals focus on A&E, mental health and cancer services as part of a new strategy.5

After announcing this strategy he said that over the next two years he expects a rise in waiting times for routine procedures, including cataract removal, hernia operations and laparoscopies. This will be a compromise for improvement in other areas, such as hitting the four-hour A&E target, providing better cancer care and mental health services.     

One of the main reasons people take out private medical insurance (PMI) is to avoid long NHS waiting times.

Those who have private health insurance can benefit from getting eligible treatment as soon as it's available, normally reducing and in some cases eliminating, those NHS waiting times. What's more, with private healthcare you have a much wider choice of appointment time, specialist and hospital to suit both your needs and schedule. 

Not only does Private Medical Insurance reduce waiting times and in some cases eliminate them, it also helps to ease the strain on the NHS.    


  1. Daily Mail - Hospital waiting lists at seven-year high as 3.4m need treatment
  2. NHS – NHS waiting times  
  3. BBC Two – Hospital, Episode 3, Series 2
  4. Huffington Post - Shock Report Shows UK Mental Health Services ‘At Breaking Point’
  5. The Telegraph - Hip and knee surgery waiting lists to lengthen as NHS focus on A&E and cancer care

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