Structural, economic and social factors can lead to inequalities in the length of time people wait for NHS planned hospital care – such as hip or knee operations – and their experience while they wait. In 2020, after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, NHS England asked NHS trusts and systems to take an inclusive approach to tackling waiting lists by disaggregating waiting times by ethnicity and deprivation to identify inequalities and to take action in response. This was an important change to how NHS organisations were asked to manage waiting lists – embedding work to tackle health inequalities into the process.
Between December 2022 and June 2023, the King’s Fund undertook qualitative case studies about the implementation of this policy in three NHS trusts and their main integrated care boards (ICBs), and interviewed a range of other people about using artificial intelligence (AI) to help prioritise care. It also reviewed literature, NHS board papers and national waiting times data. The aim was to understand how the policy was being interpreted and implemented locally, and to extract learning from this. It found work was at an early stage, although there were examples of effective interventions that made appointments easier to attend, and prioritised treatment and support while waiting. Reasons for the lack of progress included a lack of clarity about the case for change, operational challenges such as poor data, cultural issues including different views about a fair approach, and a lack of accountability for the inclusive part of elective recovery.
Taking an inclusive approach to tackling waiting lists should be a core part of effective waiting list management and can contribute to a more equitable health system and healthier communities. Tackling inequalities on waiting lists is also an important part of the NHS’s wider ambitions to address persistent health inequalities. But to improve the slow progress to date, NHS England, ICBs and trusts need to work with partners to make the case for change, take action and hold each other to account.