NHS staff provided timely, high quality care to a record numbers of people in England this winter, according to official figures published today.
The hard work of frontline staff combined with ongoing improvements to how the NHS provides care meant over 380,000 more patients were treated within four hours in Accident and Emergency (A&E) than over winter last year, overall A&E performance improved, and long waits for routine surgery fell for the eighth month in a row.
Ambulance services also responded to the most urgent calls faster, with fewer delays handing over patients to hospital teams.
At the same time, more people received the support they needed to avoid a long stay in hospital, bed occupancy rates were lower, and hospitals delivered over three million planned operations and treatments, without the need for national cancellation of routine care.
Pauline Philip, National Director of Emergency and Elective Care said: “Throughout the NHS, staff have worked tirelessly to deliver the improvements we’ve seen for patients this winter, putting in place new and improved services, delivering a record number of flu jabs and providing care directly to a record number of people.
“Millions of people in England who have benefited from NHS care and advice this last few months will therefore want to join me in paying thanks to all health service staff for their exceptional efforts.”
In A&E, over seven million attendees were assessed, treated and discharged or admitted within four hours from the beginning of December to the end of March – a record high, and 380,000 more than last year.
Over the period, performance against the four hour standard was 85.4%, an improvement on last year, despite a 5.1% increase in the number of attendances. 12 hour waits for a bed on a ward also fell by 37.5%.
Among those needing further care, thousands more have benefited from being assessed, diagnosed, treated and allowed to return home without the need for an overnight stay compared to last year, with ‘zero lengths of stay’ increasing by 11.7%.
As part of the NHS Long Term Plan, every major hospital will provide these urgent same day services by next winter to improve care for patients and reduce unnecessary admissions.
Meanwhile, ambulance services improved their average response time to the most serious (Category 1) incidents over December to March by one minute and 24 seconds, or 16.4%, while emergency (Category 2) incident response times improved by four minutes and 48 seconds (17.6%).
And despite taking 54,000 more patients to hospital than last year (December to February), 17,250 fewer experienced a long (30 minutes or more) wait to be signed over from the care of ambulance crews to hospital staff.
The NHS 111 service also dealt with almost 75,000 extra calls over this winter, with the proportion of calls receiving input from a clinician increasing to 53.7% in March 2019, compared to 48.8% in March 2018.
This comes at the same time as new data shows that the highest number of patients ever started NHS treatment for common mental health disorders such as anxiety and low-level depression in one month. In January, 103,524 patients started on Improving Access to Physical Therapies (IAPT) for the first time, which is widely recognised as the most ambitious programme of talking therapies in the world. Nine out of ten patients waited less than six weeks to enter treatment and 99.1% less than 18 weeks.
In the past year alone it has had over one million people referred for care, met every performance target consistently and most importantly has helped hundreds of thousands of people to overcome their depression and anxiety, and better manage their mental health.
Simon Stevens, NHS England chief executive, said: “The country rightly owes our NHS staff enormous gratitude for these undoubted improvements in care over this past winter, while at the same time recognising the intense and continuing pressure under which frontline NHS services continue to have to operate.”
Ian Dalton, Chief Executive of NHS Improvement said: “Reforms to emergency care across the NHS mean that despite treating record numbers of patients, this winter the NHS delivered a year-on-year improvement against the A&E target for the first time in 5 years. The NHS has achieved this whilst radically reducing the number of patients waiting more than 52 weeks for elective care, significantly reducing cancelled operations and long A&E waits, and improving ambulance performance across the country.
“This achievement is a testament to the hard work of more than a million NHS staff and means that the NHS is in a position to achieve further reform. As the funding to implement the NHS Long Term Plan becomes available, people can expect to see expanded services to keep them well in the community, and faster access to the right care when they need it.
In addition to urgent and emergency care, today’s figures also show that over 135,000 more planned treatments began within 18 weeks over December to February, and over 330,000 more diagnostic tests were carried out.
Waits of over a year for routine operations and treatment have fallen particularly sharply, with 919 fewer people still on the waiting list more than 52 weeks in February compared to the beginning of the financial year, a reduction of 32%. This is the eighth month in a row when long waits for care have fallen.
Despite the increased demand for care, unlike last year the National Escalation Pressures Panel did not need to advise hospitals to cancel non-urgent operations to relieve pressure on intensive care beds, and the number of urgent operations cancelled between December and February for non-clinical reasons fell by 3.8% year on year.
Work between the NHS and social care also meant that thousands more people could return home quickly after a spell in hospital, with the number of bed days lost to delays arranging care in the community reduced by 10%. Over December to February, the number of people spending over 7 and over 21 days in hospital fell by 7% and 12% respectively.
A record number of frontline health professionals also chose to protect themselves and patients from flu this year, with Public Health England figures showing that 70.3% took up the jab at work, compared to 68.7% last winter.