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Children put at risk by long waits for community services, say NHS leaders

Children put at risk by long waits for community services, say NHS leaders

Children and young people are being put at risk by increasingly long waits for vital community health services, NHS leaders have said in a recent survey.

Leaders of 67 trusts and community interest companies said that providers were struggling to keep pace with demand for community services and called for greater national investment to support prevention and increase staff numbers.

Responding to NHS Providers and NHS Confederation’s Community Network Survey, 100% of leaders said they were concerned about the impacts of long wait times for community services on children, with 77% saying they were extremely concerned.

Sharon White, chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurse Association (SAPHNA), told Nursing in Practice that long wait times meant the NHS was ‘storing up significant poor health, education, and wellbeing outcomes for the future’.

Ms White said: ‘Given the ongoing disinvestment in the school nursing workforce, resulting in a 35% loss in staffing, the cost-of-living crisis, and exponential rise in mental health issues we are failing our children.’

The survey found that, on average, school nursing and mental health school teams had the shortest average estimated time until initial assessment and treatment, with waits of 3.3 and 3.4 weeks respectively.

However, school nursing also faced significant variation in wait times, with respondents reporting that some students were waiting between eight and 12 weeks at the longest.

Meanwhile, neurodevelopmental pathways saw the longest wait times, with children waiting 40 weeks until initial assessment and a further 30 weeks until treatment on average.

Over 80% of survey respondents said that waiting times for community services have increased since the pandemic.

Healthcare leaders warned this could lead to delays in social development, education and communication and had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities.

Respondents said the key changes they would like to see were: more government investment in prevention and early invention, more national funding, and support to increase the number of staff with the right skills.

Alison Morton, chief executive of the Institute of Health Visiting, told Nursing in Practice that the data showed ‘investment in prevention and early intervention provide the key to managing the growing demand for healthcare in our nation’.

Ms Morton said: ‘To fix this, a ‘whole system’ response is needed to improve children’s health by tackling the wider determinants of health and working with communities to drive lasting change.

‘Following years of cuts, we also need to rebuild the backbone of child health services in communities with robust multi-disciplinary teams, including midwives, paediatricians, health visitors, GPs and children’s therapists all working together with a shared ambition to improve children’s health and reduce inequalities.’

Meanwhile, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said children and young people’s community services were ‘now under extraordinary pressure’ and warned that they must be given ‘the same level of priority as the elective backlog, coupled with action from across government’.

The survey’s findings are supported by data released by NHS England which also highlights the dramatic increase of wait times for children’s services in the community.

Since October 2022 the number of adults waiting for community service has increased by only 3.2%, whereas the wait list for children’s services has grown 10.2% over the same period, rising to 227,490.

The survey’s authors said the data ‘echoes our survey findings which show that, despite the best efforts of community providers, there are still concerning waits for children and young people’s services with significant impacts for children and families, and for staff morale’.

The authors added: ‘Although this survey is focused on waiting times for community services, it is worth noting that demand and waits for children and adolescent mental health services have also increased significantly since the pandemic, as has pressure on acute, specialist paediatric beds.’

The Department of Health and Social Care was contacted for comment.

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