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Practices making 47% more urgent referrals for children since 2019

by Jess Hacker
21 February 2022

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GPs have made 47% more urgent referrals for children and young people when compared to pre-pandemic levels, new analysis has suggested.

According to the Nuffield Trust, the increase could signify a ‘deterioration’ in children’s health as they access services later and at a worse stage of illness.

The thinktank identified a 79% decrease in urgent referrals from GPs to hospital care for children and young during the month of April 2020.

As of winter 2021, however, hospitals saw a 47% increase in urgent GP referrals compared to winter 2019.

And among those under-16s urgently referred by their GP with a suspected cancer, 15.7% waited longer than two weeks to see a consultant: up from 6% two years prior.

Meanwhile, between April and September 2021, there was an 81% increase in referrals for children and young people’s mental health services on the same period in 2019.

The analysis forms part of the think tank’s QualityWatch report: a programme run jointly with the Health Foundation, focusing on how healthcare services develop over time.

The analysis found that:

  • One-in-five children waited more than 12 weeks for a follow up mental health appointment between April 2020 and March 2021
  • The number of under-19s attending A&E primarily for an eating disorder doubled to 214 from October 2019 to October 2021
  • In November 2021, nearly 1,000 children had been waiting over two years for paediatric hospital services.

The Nuffield Trust said the ‘failure to diagnose and treat childhood illness’ early, including cancer and mental health conditions, can have ‘lasting harm on future health’.

Its researchers urged the Government to improve access to services for young people, in particular.

Jessica Morris, researcher at the Nuffield Trust said: ‘Despite being much less at risk of hospitalisation from the virus, the youngest members of our society have not escaped unscathed and we can see a heavy toll on their mental wellbeing and access to health services.’

She added: ‘With referrals for mental health services jumping to unprecedented levels, understanding the full impact of the pandemic on children’s health is critical if we are to support services to improve access and meet the growing health and care needs of our young people.’

Practices were recently advised to provide ‘unrushed’ consultations to maintain better continuity of care for young people with mental health concerns.

Primary care needs greater flexibility to hire mental health specialists

Meanwhile, NHS leaders have called for greater flexibility in how community-based mental health practitioners are recruited across primary care.

In a separate report, published today (21 February), the NHS Confederation called for a dedicated mental healthcare recovery plan, similar to the Government’s recently published backlog plan.

As many as 1.6 million people are currently on the waiting list for specialised mental health treatment.

The Confederation said the dedicated plan should include greater support for primary care services which are seeing a greater number of patients needing mental health support, but who are ‘not ill enough’ for referral to secondary care.

This plan should also consider providing additional support for the mental health workers feeling burnt out and setting out how vacancies will be filled, it said.

The health secretary recently warned that his elective recovery plan has factored in around two years of growing waiting lists, with the backlog expected to rise until March 2024.

A recent study found that an estimated 730,000 additional referrals for mental health services could be made each year, placing ‘significant additional pressure on general practice’.

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