The scheme comes as it was revealed that 7.75 million people were waiting for NHS treatment in August in England – the highest figure since records began in 2007.
By Reemul Balla, News reporter @Reemul_B
Thousands of patients stuck on the record-high NHS England waiting list will be given the opportunity to travel to other hospitals in the country for earlier treatment.
From today, any patient waiting longer than 40 weeks who does not have an appointment within the next eight weeks will receive a letter, text or email from their hospital.
The proposal, announced earlier this year by the NHS and government, will be offered to up to 400,000 eligible patients – 5% of the overall waiting list.
They will then have to provide the distance they are willing to go for treatment – which includes the scope for national travel – although some patients with complex conditions rendering them unsuitable for travel won’t be allowed to do so.
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Using its online “matching” platform, NHS teams will then identify whether any alternative hospitals or independent sector providers in the country have capacity to see them sooner.
If no other hospital is found within eight weeks of starting the process, the patient will remain with their current provider and keep their position on the waiting list.
For those who may struggle to travel, which could include the elderly or the disabled, local funding is in place to help them – if they need a carer or escort, or to cover taxi and accommodation costs, for example.
Those on low incomes may benefit from the NHS Low Income Scheme, which can cover travel expenses.
The NHS told Sky News that cases beyond this would depend on local trusts, but the health service has said patients should not be disadvantaged based on their personal circumstances.
The total NHS England waiting list stood at 7.75 million at the end of August, the highest number since records began in 2007.
It could reach 8 million by next summer regardless of whether strike action by healthcare workers continues, and even more if strikes do carry on.
Implementing surgical hubs, community diagnostic centres, and the use of AI and robots are some of the ways the NHS has looked to speed up surgery and other treatments amid the backlog.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the new approach would combine waiting times for patients being cut with “improving the choice and control they have over their own care”.
Ms Pritchard added: “Giving this extra option to these patients also demonstrates the clear benefits of a single national health service, with staff able to share capacity right across the country.
“So, whether a patient’s care moves to the next town or somewhere further away, it is absolutely right that we make the most of available capacity across the country to continue to reduce the backlogs that have inevitably built up due to the pandemic and provide the best possible service for patients.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the move would “empower” patients as well as “help tackle” the waiting lists.
Mr Barclay said: “From today, those waiting 40 weeks or more will be given more options to speed up treatment, including at hospitals with shorter waiting times or using capacity within the independent sector.
“This is the next step in our plan to build a health service around patients and follows on from the roll out of community diagnostic centres, surgical hubs and virtual wards to unlock capacity in the NHS.”
Patients are advised not contact their GP practice or hospital themselves regarding the scheme.