Exclusive poll backs up consultants’ protests over bed closures and longer waiting times for surgery
Denis Campbell, health correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 27 December 2011 21.30 GMT
The coalition’s pledge to protect the NHS is in fresh doubt after four out of five doctors said they had seen patient care suffer as a result of health service cuts during 2011.
A poll of GPs and hospital doctors, carried out for the Guardian, challenges David Cameron’s promise to “cut the deficit, not the NHS”.
Doctors cite hospital bed closures, pressure to give patients cheaper, slower-acting drugs, cuts to occupational health support, and reductions in community health services as examples of recent cost-cutting measures.
Doctors.net.uk, a professional networking site to which almost all British doctors belong, asked medics: “Have cuts to staff and/or services affected patient care in your department, area or surgery during the last 12 months?” Of the 664 doctors who responded, 527 (79%) said yes and 137 (21%) said no.
Among 440 hospital doctors, 359 have seen cuts, while 168 of the 224 family doctors said the same.
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association’s hospital consultants and specialists committee, said the poll findings confirmed that the NHS was now “retracting” and doing less for patients, contradicting repeated ministerial pledges that frontline NHS services would escape the government’s deficit reduction programme.
“The reality is that whether you look at it from the point of view of a doctor, another clinician or a patient, there are NHS cuts ongoing and it adds up to a picture where the NHS is now retracting. So it’s hard to marry that back to the original statement ‘I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS’,” he said.
“The evidence all around us of cuts that are being made adds up to a picture where the government has failed to deliver on the promises it made to people on coming into office.”
Patients were waiting in pain “when they might not otherwise have been” because of longer waiting times for hip and knee surgery, for example, Porter said.
Hospitals were cutting services because they are under great and growing financial pressure from a £20bn savings drive (dubbed “the Nicholson challenge” after NHS chief executive David Nicholson), primary care trusts (PCTs) holding back money to pay for the NHS restructuring ordered by health secretary Andrew Lansley, and a reduction in the PCTs’ “tariff” payments to hospitals for treating patients, he added.
Lansley came under fire from Labour on Tuesday after it emerged the government plans to allow foundation trusts to raise up to 49% of their money from private work.
New evidence collected by the Patients Association also confirms that the NHS in England has cut services for new mothers and people with dental problems. Responses by 64 PCTs to freedom of information requests reveal that they spent £5.1m less on pre- and postnatal support in 2010-11 than in 2009-10, despite a baby boom. They also spent £3.7m less on dental services in the same period, official data show.
Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said she feared young women in the south London borough served by her surgery could become infertile because of the local NHS primary care trust’s decision to spend less on screening for chlamydia.
Failure to detect and treat the common sexually transmitted infection increases the risk of a sufferer not being able to have children later in life. “Chlamydia screening has been cut by Lambeth PCT to save money. That’s sad and short-sighted because it will mean that young girls end up being infertile because they won’t find out that they had chlamydia,” said Gerada.
GPs in Lambeth have also seen cuts to budgets for interpreting services to help them communicate with patients whose first language is not English, and patients forced to wait longer for physiotherapy.
Nicholson, other NHS leaders and ministers have stressed repeatedly this year that the task of saving £20bn by 2015 should not mean cuts to patient services.
“Despite the huge scale of the £20bn efficiency savings demanded by the ‘Nicholson challenge’, the secretary of state for health has consistently pledged to protect the NHS frontline,” said Dr Tim Ringrose, a spokesman for Doctors.net.uk.
“Yet our research, among the doctors who are working there, finds that the reality is somewhat different.”
He added: “We have received reports about across the board budget cuts to essential services, staffing shortages, and pressures to reduce prescribing of newer, potentially more effective therapies.
“Doctors are very supportive of the drive to improve efficiency in the NHS but don’t want to see reductions in access to services or reduced quality to services for patients.”
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “These poll findings are very worrying because we were repeatedly assured that when savings were made in the NHS they would not affect patient care.
“Yet on a daily basis we get evidence through our helpline of services being withdrawn or reduced.
“We applaud the ‘Nicholson challenge’ but achieving it seems to be shortchanging patients in a way that David Cameron and Andrew Lansley told us would not happen.”
Callers to the group’s helpline have told of having their regular supply of incontinence pads suddenly withdrawn by the NHS, and suffering side-effects after having their usual drugs replaced with cheaper alternatives.