EXCLUSIVE: Health Insurance investigation: physiotherapy waiting times exposed

Long waits risk onset of mental ill-health and long-term absence

Patients with musculoskeletal problems are waiting over six weeks for physiotherapy in more than half of England’s primary care trusts (PCTs), despite evidence that the propensity for back pain patients to return to work falls rapidly after four to six weeks.

Freedom of Information requests made by Health Insurance, responded to by 123 out of 152 PCTs, have uncovered that nine have waits of over 18 weeks for physiotherapy to treat back pain and other musculoskeletal conditions. Over a quarter (36) reported waits of over three months.

The survey highlights the extent of variation in the provision of services across the country, with over 40% (54) of PCTs offering physiotherapy in less than six weeks and five reporting waits of less than two weeks.

GP referrals for physiotherapy are not currently included in the government’s target of a maximum 18 week wait from referral to hospital treatment.

A recent government-commissioned report on the health of the UK’s workforce warned that delays in intervention for people with back pain come at a heavy price. Dame Carol Black’s Working for a Healthier Tomorrow states that by the time physiotherapy has begun, patients may be unable to return to work for a multitude of reasons, including mental health problems.

Back problems are the second most common cause of sickness absence for UK manual workers and are within the top five causes across all businesses. The condition costs nearly five million working days a year in the UK.

It has been estimated that 1.6 million adults suffer from chronic back pain, at a cost to the economy of £12.3bn a year.

We asked England’s 152 primary care trusts – the organisations which hold NHS budgets at a local level and commission services – the following question under the Freedom of Information Act. A total of 123 responded. We asked: What is the waiting time for physiotherapy for treatment of back pain and other musculoskeletal conditions?

DR GORDON PARKER from the Society of Occupational Medicine said: “Occupational health specialists are very clear that early assessment of musculoskeletal conditions, and early referral for appropriate treatment, significantly reduces time lost from work and the financial burden on employers and individuals.

“Employers who provide access to physiotherapy through their occupational health services see real benefits. For example, the Worthing and Southlands Hospitals NHS Trust Occupational Health Physiotherapy Service achieved a reduction in sickness absence for musculoskeletal disorders of 25% in the first six months.

“In Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Trust, a similar scheme produced significant benefits, including 64% of staff reporting that accessing the service had prevented them from taking time off work.”

SUE HAYWARD GILES, assistant director of practice and development at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said:

“We know that waiting times are variable. Some patients [who wait for a long time] will find a private or independent provider or another professional; some patients will not need physio after so long or won’t be motivated to come into the service; some patients will deteriorate and the problem becomes more acute or more chronic and will take longer to resolve – drugs bills increase and GP time increases.”

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