Waiting times for treatment on the National Health Service (NHS) have started to rise once more as a result of the European Working Time Directive limiting doctors’ working hours.
Since the 1990s waiting times on the NHS had been falling but with this move they are back on the rise again. The European rules on maximum working hours, which limits employees to a 48-hour working week, have significantly limited the working time of junior doctors and have caused waiting times to spike upwards since its implementation in August 2009.
The government is currently trying to implement and opt-out for NHS workers in order to bring waiting times back into line, effectively undermining the European Working Time Directive.
The latest piece of research was conducted by The Royal College of Surgeons, which found that the proportion of patients having to wait longer than 18 weeks for non-emergency surgery had nearly doubled in the previous 18 months, from a rate of 1.5 per cent up to almost 3 per cent in March 2010.
Since 1990 there was a vast improvement in NHS waiting lists, with many patients having to wait a matter of just weeks. However, since the European Working Time Directive cut the hours of junior doctors’ from 56 to 48 hours per week all the previous gains have been lost.
Figures from the Department of Health show that the number of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment rose from 10,000 in June 2009 to 17,515 in March 2010, an increase of 75 per cent and the highest figure since September 2007.
The president of the Royal College of Surgeons, Dr John Black argues that the rise in waiting times was inevitable.
“If you have the same number of patients, no more doctors and ask them to work less than it is inevitable that the time available for elective procedures will reduce and waiting lists grow,” said Dr Black.
The survey also states that 80 per cent of consultant surgeons and two-thirds of surgical trainees believe that patient care had diminished since the EU directive began.
From this research it clear the EU directive on working hours needs to be removed from the NHS as quickly as possible if patient care is going to be protected. With the hiring freeze in the public sector it is not as though more doctors can be taken on in order to increase overall working hours in the NHS.