In the face of record high waiting times for elective care, The King's Fund undertook research to understand the strategies that have been used to reduce waiting times in England and elsewhere in the past 20 years.
Elective care waiting lists and waiting times are a product of the fluctuations in and disparities between the demand for and available supply of healthcare. Understanding the root causes of these disparities and taking corrective action to restore balance between demand and supply and optimising the conditions within the health care system is therefore considered key to any strategy to reduce waiting times and sustain them at that level.
- The study found successful strategies are typically associated with a concert of activities that simultaneously ensure sufficient supply of health care, manage demand and optimise the conditions within the health care system itself.
- In England in the 2000s, a number of activities were associated with reduced waiting times. These activities were concentrated within the categories of increasing supply and optimising conditions within the health care system itself to achieve the goal of an 18‑week referral to treatment target by 2008. These activities were underpinned by a bigger idea about what the health service as a whole should look and feel like, and incorporated how waiting times are brought down as much as what activities might be used.
- For the experts interviewed, the achievement of the 18 weeks target was made possible as a result of: valuing and investing in people working in the NHS; a clear, central vision and goal for waiting and an ambition that those working within health care felt equipped to take on; cultivating relationships and leadership at all levels of the health care system; accountability, incentives and targeted support to encourage performance against waiting times targets and other measures of quality of care; and seizing the momentum of wider NHS reform.
- Whereas the improvement in waiting times performance of nearly 20 years ago took place in a very different political and economic context, the research highlighted not only hope but opportunities to reduce waiting times in the present day: by addressing shortages of health care staff and physical resources urgently; by working with integrated care systems in the spirit of prevention, collaboration, inclusion and community‑based models of care; and by aligning a vision for the health services with a plan that brings staff, patients and the public along on the journey to get there.