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Community Health Services: Waiting Lists

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of current levels of waiting lists and times for community health services for (1) children and young people, and (2) adults.

We regularly monitor community health services’ waiting lists and recognise the variability between the number of people waiting and the time on waiting lists across services in local areas. We are committed to reducing waiting lists; that is why the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan sets commitments to grow the community workforce, with increases in training places for district nurses and allied health professionals and a renewed focus on retaining our existing staff.

My Lords, long waits have a more severe effect on children because delays in assessment and treatment have a knock-on effect on their communication skills, social and educational development and mental well-being. With over 37% of children and young people on waiting lists for community health services for more than 18 weeks, compared to under 16% of adults, when will the Government address this ever-widening gap and what steps are they taking to prevent a disproportionate impact on vulnerable families both now and in the long term?

The noble Baroness is correct about the urgency for young people; I have personal experience of this as well. We are taking steps by piloting nine early language and support services for all children focused on exactly what the noble Baroness mentioned. There is £70 million behind that pilot, with the intention being that we learn lessons from that and roll it out quickly.

My Lords, my noble friend will know that a number of surveys have identified that over half a million adults are waiting for adult care assessments. The normal waiting time is 28 days, but for some it is, sadly, significantly longer, which has a disproportionate effect on some of the most vulnerable. What action are the Government taking to reduce it?

We are starting to see a blue- print which is beginning to work. The highest waiting list for adults is related to musculoskeletal issues. Since we put an improvement framework in place, 91% of people are now being seen within 12 weeks—a big improvement. We are moving to self-referral also, and digital therapeutics beyond that. There is a road map in place that we need to apply across other areas.

My Lords, within the published data for wait times in community health services, we see that some people face very long waits for home oxygen assessments, including some waiting for over a year. Given that home oxygen is key for many with respiratory conditions staying out of hospital, will the Minister prioritise looking into why we are seeing these delays, and ensure those who need home oxygen do not face unnecessary waits?

As noble Lords probably know, we published this data for the first time in March, so it is only now we are getting the data that we can truly work on it. It sets out 35 different areas where we understand those waiting lists for the first time, so we know which ones to prioritise—home oxygen being clearly one of those.

My Lords, with a staff absence rate of 5.6% overall for NHS community staff, which is equivalent to 75,000 staff, what are the Government doing to address this high level of sickness, including mental health sickness? Without the staff, the services cannot be provided. Can the Minister also explain what is being done to target those who have particular training in looking after children, given that in some areas the waiting lists for children are incredibly high, particularly for mental health services for children in the community?

The noble Baroness is correct: absenteeism is often an example, in the same way as poor retention is, of problems in the wider workplace and the pressures that people have to face now. That is why the long-term workforce plan, which I think was welcomed by all noble Lords, looks to tackle every aspect: recruiting more staff so the pressures on individuals are reduced; making sure we have training and retention plans in place; and the necessary skills training in each area, including that of young people.

My Lords, in a recent survey of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, over 90% agreed that unpaid carers are now coming forward with an increased level of need, with directors ranking burnout as the number one reason for the increasing carer breakdown over the past year. Unpaid carers are clearly bearing the brunt of shortages in health and social care support, so can the Minister say what the Government can do to help more with unpaid carers?

We all agree that unpaid carers are the backbone and hidden army behind a lot of what we see. We have made some good moves in that direction. We have the set-up for leave, so that they can have time away and a reduction in stress. We are setting up payment for them, albeit we all accept that there is such a hidden army we need to do more.

My Lords, recent research has found that almost three in five disabled children seeking physical and talking therapies are waiting more than 12 months for appointments, which is totally unacceptable? How do the Government plan to address such a large backlog and improve opportunities for disabled children? Perhaps the Minister can elucidate on that particular area.

Unfortunately, as we know, we have a backlog in quite a few areas, often as a consequence of the pandemic and the period when we could not see as many people as we would have liked to. I wish I could say there was a quick solution; we all recognise the long-term solution is the long-term workforce plan, where we need to address the vacancies and have more staff to increase the output and supply. We are putting in a record investment of £2.4 billion behind this, but I freely admit it is not an overnight solution.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest in the register and my association with the Alzheimer’s Society. My noble friend will know that, when asked, most people will say that when they die, they would like to die at home in their own bed. There is one group of people for whom there seems to be no structured plan to make that possible, and that is for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. They are cared for at home until the end of their life, but the end of their life very often ends up in a hospital ward—the most inappropriate place for somebody with dementia, unless there is a genuine medical need to be there. Could my noble friend look to see if we can put together a structured plan that would be of help to families in planning the end of life of close relatives? I particularly do not mean something that follows the way the Liverpool care pathway was put together.

I thank my noble friend. This was actually a conversation of a big task force summit that we had just last week. We commented that a lot of people have pregnancy plans, for instance, which might say that they want to have birth planned at home; a lot of people will have “Do not resuscitate” plans; what we do not have enough of are frailty plans, which say, “I don’t want to go into hospital. I’d rather be cared for at home. I know it might mean that I don’t live for quite as long, but that’s my preference”. I think there is a whole debate that we need to have to start to move towards that, and to make sure we have that support in the community to do it as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the spare capacity of therapists in the private sector, some of them specialising in the mental health of children? As we have such long waiting lists for children and mental health, why is that not being used?

The noble Lord is correct, and my understanding is that we are looking to use the independent sector more and more. I will check and verify this, as it was from the briefing probably about three or four months ago, but my belief is that about 51% of the physiotherapy that we use is from the private sector. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that we need to use the independent sector more and more in these situations—something pioneered by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, over there.

My Lords, every day, about seven children will develop cancer; eight out of 10 will survive more than five years with modern care, but these children who survive require long-term community care, both for their families and themselves. Would the Minister agree that the integrated care pathways developed by integrated care systems should improve community care for cancer-surviving children?

Yes; our whole direction of travel, as noble Lords are aware, is putting more and more power in the hands of the local integrated care boards. Going into the detail of it, the whole workforce plan moves a lot of the emphasis away from treatment in hospitals into care in the community—primary and prevention. This is a direction of travel that I think we all agree on, which is why we are putting more resources behind it, albeit that these things take time.