The Conservatives have been accused of “failing women” as analysis reveals gynaecology waiting times have trebled in the past decade, with more than 540,000 waiting for NHS care.
NHS England data shows that in October 2012, the average waiting time to see a gynecologist was 4.8 weeks. By October 2022, the most recent month for which figures are available, that figure had increased by 225% to 15.6 weeks.
Many of the conditions experienced by women waiting to see a gynecologist are progressive. Left untreated, they may need more complex or invasive surgery. Thousands are living in extreme pain as a result of the long waits, doctors, health experts and charities told the Guardian.
The figures reveal that 38,231 women have been waiting for more than a year. Ten years ago there were 15 women in England waiting longer than 12 months – and no one waiting two years. Today, 69 women have been waiting for more than 24 months.
The analysis, by Labor, also reveals a “postcode lottery” in access to gynecological treatment, with women living in areas the Conservatives had promised to level up facing some of the longest waiting times for appointments.
“The Conservatives’ woeful mismanagement of our NHS is failing women across the country,” said Anneliese Dodds, the shadow secretary of state for women and equalities.
“The government keeps blaming the pandemic for rising waiting times, but the truth is ministers have deprioritised women’s health for over a decade – and now women are suffering the consequences.”
Dr Ranee Thakar, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “This new analysis adds to our own research that gynecology waiting lists were outstripping other specialties long before the pandemic, and they continue to grow rapidly.
“Shockingly, the fact we can now track this pattern back 10 years, shows how long overdue action is to address the unequal growth in waiting lists.”
Thakar added: “Women’s health has been consistently deprioritised. Gynaecology waiting times are currently the longest we’ve seen since waiting list targets were introduced, leaving thousands of women with symptoms including extreme pain, heavy menstrual bleeding and incontinence.”
Thakar also warned that the huge number of women on the waiting list – 542,627 in October 2022 – could lead to an increase in A&E admissions as their conditions deteriorate over time, with treatment needed likely to be more complicated, piling more pressure on the NHS.
“Long waits can result in increased admissions to emergency care, or more complex surgery than women had been able to access non-surgical treatments earlier on or operated on promptly.”
“Women with gynecological conditions are being let down,” Thakar added. “Many are suffering with both their physical and mental health, impacting on their work, their ability to socialize and their relationships.”
The NHS target in England is that 92% of patients have a referral-to-treatment time of less than 18 weeks. Thakar said that for gynecology, nearly half (45%) of women are waiting longer.
The analysis also reveals the north-west and the Midlands have the longest average wait times, at 18.6 weeks and 17.5 weeks respectively.
“The idea of waiting years for such important treatment was once unthinkable,” said Dodds. “For many women today it is a reality, with women in parts of the country that the Conservatives supposedly want to ‘level up’ facing the longest waits.”
“There is a huge disparity in the length you wait depending on where you live in the country,” added Thakar. “The elective recovery plan must focus on reducing the disparities between different regions and ending the postcode lottery for care.”
Helen Hyndman, a nurse at the Eve Appeal, a gynecological cancer charity, warned the long waiting times could lead to more cancers being missed.
“We have spoken to women who have been waiting over 52 weeks for their gynecological appointment — some of them with key red flag cancer symptoms like abnormal bleeding and significant pain,” she said. Most of these women thankfully won’t have cancer, but some will.
She added: “We must have action on this immediately. Symptoms like abnormal bleeding and pain have been normalized for so long as just being one of those things that happen, and gynecological has been put at the bottom of the priority list.”
Athena Lamnisos, the chief executive of the Eve Appeal, added: “We know from the data that waiting times in gynae are longer than for any other specialist area. Waiting for cancer screening, diagnostic tests and results is stressful – and of course does not lead to positive outcomes when it comes to cancer.”
Faye Farthing, the head of communications and campaigns at Endometriosis UK, said gynecology waiting times were so out of control that increasing numbers of women were considering paying to go private, even if the cost of living crisis meant doing so would put them at financial risk .
“Many are facing the unacceptable choice of wait or pay due to unacceptable waiting lists, although for many the option of going private was never viable, let alone during the current economic climate,” she said. “Nobody should be having to make a choice between their finances and their health.
Farthing often hears from women “suffering in debilitating pain” while “being robbed of their careers, relationships, mental health, and more”.
“The impact chronic pain can have on someone’s life, including their mental health, cannot be overstated,” she added. “These statistics must act as a final warning to the government that urgent action is needed.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.