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Over 62,000 fewer operations performed this winter, following necessary cancellations

08 Mar 2018

Over 62,000 fewer NHS treatments, including surgical operations, were performed by consultants this winter (November - January) compared to the previous winter, analysis by the Royal College of Surgeons shows.

In the months from November 2017 to January 2018, 860,816 operations were performed in the NHS. This was 62,289 fewer than the same period in 2016-2017.

In January 2018 there were 294,364 hospital-based treatments carried out compared to 308,824 treatments in January 2017; 294,532 in January 2016; and 303,346 in January 2015. This is despite the fact that there should have been more operations this year. This is because there were 22 'normal' working days this January compared to 21 last year and 20 in January 2016.

In trauma and orthopaedics, there was an 8.4% fall in treatments compared to last winter. There were 150,634 treatments carried out between November 2017-January 2018, a fall of 19,220 compared to the same period in 2017-2018. In January 2018, there was a fall of 7,037 treatments. In general surgery, the number of treatments fell from 107,163 to 98,884, a fall of 8,279 compared to the same period in 2017-2018.  

The decrease in the number of operations performed this winter follows necessary advice from NHS England’s emergency pressures panel (of which the RCS is a member) to postpone all planned surgery for NHS patients in January. This was intended to relieve pressure on accident and emergency departments by concentrating resources on patients needing emergency treatment.  However, it also resulted in many patients not having surgery at a time when they needed it, extending their time in pain or discomfort.

Professor Derek Alderson, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, said:

“NHS England’s advice to hospitals to cancel all elective operations in January was a necessary evil under the circumstances. It meant patients avoided the distress of having their operation cancelled after turning up to hospital and it freed up NHS staff and resources to deal with patients needing emergency treatment.

“However, it also inevitably prevented many patients who are in discomfort or pain from having an operation when they needed it, potentially causing their condition to deteriorate. 

“The fact remains that none of what the NHS experienced this year was new. There is more the NHS can do to improve planning and resources for next year to deal with demand. Furthermore, we urgently need a clear plan to deal with the growing backlog of cancelled operations. 

“The newly created National Emergency Pressures Panel, of which I am a member, is now needed throughout the year. Firefighting each winter is not enough. The retail sector can predict shop footfall based on small changes in temperature – and it prepares for the increase during the Christmas shopping period well in advance. The same level of sophistication needs to be applied to the NHS and we must start planning for next winter now."

Data published by NHS England today also shows 76.9% patients at major A&E departments (‘type 1 units’) were treated within the four-hour government target in February -well below the 95% target.

Furthermore, the data reveals that 88.2% patients were treated within 18 weeks to start planned treatment in January 2018 – well below the 92% government target. 


About our methodology

  • The RCS has looked at the admitted patient care dataset. This covers patients whose consultant-led treatment started during the month and involved admission to hospital.
  • Over the last few years admitted patient care has flat-lined as more care is being delivered by non-consultants in the community. For instance in 2017 there were a total of 3.60m admitted patient care pathways compared to 3.67m in 2016.

Consultant-led Referral to Treatment Waiting Times Data 2017-18

Notes to editors

The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care.

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