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NHS mental health waiting times – do we really know how long they are?

In our latest feature for the HSJ, our Principal Consultant, Michael Watson, looks at how much we really know about mental health waiting times, why there isn't currently parity with acute care, and which lessons we can learn from the past.
Published on
January 22, 2024

In our latest article for the HSJ, which was published today, our Principal Consultant, Michael Watson, questions whether we really know how long people are waiting for NHS mental health services.

He explores how, compared to elective care for physical health, the amount of good-quality data, monitoring and tracking that occurs for mental health is significantly lower.

While some steps in the right direction have been taken, there remains much more to be done. For example, the NHS’s four-week standard for community-based mental health, which was first announced in July 2021 and follows on from smaller-scale waiting time standards for talking therapies, early intervention psychosis and Children and Young People eating disorders, is still yet to be mandated.

And, even though the NHS’s operating guidance and priorities for 2024/24 has still yet to be released, few have hope that a timetable for implementation of this standard will appear in it.

Michael explains there are things that can be done to improve the current situation – including learning lessons from the past, and the successful implementation of the 18-week RTT standard in acute care back in 2007-08, as well as developing proper waiting lists.

“Locally, too many systems will be in the dark about how long their patients are waiting to access mental health elective care services, unable to answer the basic questions posed above: who is waiting, what are they waiting for and how long have they waited? Without proper PTLs and with no “live” standards on how to measure, it is easy to see why systems are in this position,” Michael says.

“Nationally, the establishment of a waiting time standard is a vital first step towards bringing elective care for mental health into parity with physical health – and with it, improvements to patient experience and safety,” he adds.

“We have to be open about the amount of ground to make up, but also optimistic that the expertise, experience and techniques to help mental health providers get there quickly is available.”

You can read the full article here.

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