The Conservative Party today releases figures showing that in 2007, over 7,000 NHS patients in England have had a planned operation cancelled on more than one occasion.

The story, which appears in The Independent, is based on 124 trusts across England. However, it is not clear from the reporting of ther story whether this is 124 of England’s 151 PCTs primary care trusts (the local administrative units which commission and fund hospital care), or 124 of the country’s 171 hospital trusts.

Twenty-one cancellations for one patient
One patient’s operation was cancelled on 21 separate occasions. Thirty-four percent of the trusts who responded stated that they had cancelled an operation for the same patient three times or more.

The Conservatives’ figures are based on operations which the trusts reported were cancelled for ‘non-clinical’ reasons. These mainly appear to relate to safety, and include inadequate levels of staffing to offer safe care due to illness, absence or non-recruitment; missing patient records; inadequate or lacking equipment; a shortage of beds (in truth, furniture is rarely the real issue here – inadequate nursing levels are the true cuse of this category); and what the report calls ‘staffing problems’.

The statistics report the cancellation of 77,302 operations for non-clinical reasons. However, the report is confusing since it then describes a clinical reason ‘another patient took precedence’ in 5,968 cases: this would clearly be a clinical reason, though more for the prioritised patient than for the one cancelled.

The figures also detail 10,714 cancellations due to bed shortages; 16,614 associated with unspecified problems with the operating theatre and 2,635 due to administrative problems.

3,946 cancellations were ascribed to ‘difficulties with equipment’ and 11,370 to staffing.

Low rate for ‘no notes’
Surprisingly, given NHS hospital’s slow progress with computerisation and tradition of losing patients’ paperwork, just 404 operations were reported as having been cancelled due to lack of the the patient's notes. And intriguingly, 11,585 are described in The Independent’s report as ‘due to patient-related problems’.

The Department of Health’s figures indicate that the total number of cancelled operations has increased by 14 per cent since 1997. This should be set in the context of a massive increase in NHS activity and a reduction of waiting times from 18 months in 1997 to and average of around 18 weeks presently (the figure is lower in some parts of England).

The Conservatives will allege that the total number of operations cancelled is far higher than the DH’s figures. It is not clear from the report whether this includes cancellations for clinical as well as for non-clinical reasons.