WAITING lists for life-saving heart diagnosis and treatment could more than double within two years in England due to the pandemic, British Heart Foundation’s (BHF) new report has warned.
BHF estimate that the number of people anxiously waiting for heart care and diagnosis could peak at around 550,385 in January 2024 if the NHS in England doesn’t get enough investment and is under increased pressure from Covid-19 or bad winter.
At the same time, the number of people waiting for heart surgery could almost double by February 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels, with numbers peaking at 15,384 people.
Even before the pandemic began, around 225,000 people in England were on cardiology waiting lists for heart diagnosis or treatment, while around 8,400 people were waiting for heart surgery.
Without decisive action now, BHF estimate it will take between three and five years for the heart care backlog to recover to pre-pandemic levels.
Significant delays to care
Long waits for diagnosis and treatment of conditions like coronary heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms and heart failure are emotionally distressing and increase the risk of someone becoming more unwell or even dying while they wait for vital care.
There were 5,800 “excess” deaths from heart and circulatory conditions in the first year of the pandemic in England, and the significant delays to care have likely contributed to this figure.
Even in a better case scenario, where already-pledged Government funding supports NHS England to address the heart care backlog more quickly, BHF estimate it would still take at least three years for heart care waiting lists to return to pre-pandemic levels.
However, the Government could reduce the heart care backlog by years if further significant action is taken now, the BHF believe.
The charity says this must include a clear plan for cardiovascular services and rapid investment to build more capacity into NHS England, relieve pressure on exhausted health workers, and better support for heart patients while they wait for vital treatment.
Without this immediate intervention, there is a risk that thousands of more people could die from heart and circulatory diseases, despite the NHS going above and beyond during the pandemic.
Act now to avoid more lives lost
Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, BHF Medical Director, said:
“Even before the pandemic began, waiting lists for vital heart care were far too long. But, as this report shows, the pandemic has since pushed the NHS towards breaking point, with devastating consequences for the 7.6 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK.
“Delay in diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases is not just about improving symptoms, however important that is – it is about saving lives. Tragically, we have already seen thousands of extra deaths from heart and circulatory diseases during the pandemic, and delays to care have likely contributed to this terrible toll.
“At this critical moment, the Government must act now to avoid more lives lost to treatable heart conditions. But, addressing the growing heart care backlog is only the start.
“We must also see a clear plan, alongside significant and ongoing investment, to build capacity back into the NHS and address the pandemic’s impact on health workers. Getting this right would avoid preventable heartbreak for many families.”
Diane Phillimore, 62, a carer from Calne in Wiltshire, has high blood pressure and aortic stenosis – a condition where the aortic valve becomes narrowed, reducing blood flow to the rest of your body.
She needs an appointment for an echocardiogram – an ultrasound heart scan – to see if she needs surgery to replace or repair her valve. Her original appointment in March 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic, and she has now been waiting nearly 18 months to have it rescheduled.
“I need an echocardiogram to know what’s going on inside. I was told that my valve might need to be replaced over a year ago. I’m concerned that it may be getting worse, but I don’t know.
“I’m not really an anxious person, but I have been getting a little worried because I feel like I’ve just been forgotten. I understand there is a huge backlog of heart patients like me waiting for tests and procedures due to Covid-19, but I want to know the situation and prepare myself mentally if I need surgery.
“I feel that heart patients have been a little bit neglected during all this. For many people, lockdown is over, and life is returning to some normality. But for those like me with a heart condition that needs monitoring, it has left us worried, with uncertainty over what happens next.”
British Heart Foundation’s new report – The Untold Heartbreak – details how long waits for cardiovascular care are only the “tip of the iceberg”.
Missed opportunities to prevent, diagnose and treat heart and circulatory diseases, an unprecedented backlog of people waiting for care, and a cliff-edge fall in research funding could amount to a loss of progress for a generation and lives cut short from treatable heart conditions.