SOMERSET patients are waiting longer for treatment at hospitals as a result of the pandemic - but a solution for some could be around the corner.

NHS trusts across England have come up with inventive ways to help the ever-growing waiting times, with video and telephone consultations, and the expansion of various departments and services.

NHS England announced earlier this year that it has created a £1billion Elective Recovery Fund (ERF) to help minimise the pandemic’s impact on waiting lists.

In Somerset, ophthalmology patients are waiting the longest, according to figures released before the pandemic, in the midst of it and this year.

Immediately before the pandemic, the average waiting time between referral and treatment was 15.5 weeks. By June 2020 waiting times in the county had almost doubled to 27.4.

A year on, the number of weeks a patient is waiting for eye treatment remains the highest compared to other departments at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust. According to data for April of this year, ophthalmology patients face an average wait of 20.5 weeks for treatment.

Hoping to combat these lengthy waiting times, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust is due to open a new Ophthalmic theatre suite next month at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton.

Ed Herbert, a consultant ophthalmologist at the Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, said the new building is an “exciting opportunity”.

“The eye unit is the busiest department at Musgrove Park Hospital, carrying out more than 3,000 operations every year and providing nearly 50,000 outpatient appointments,” he said.

“Historically, there has always been a greater demand for surgery than we can meet, leading to long waiting times.

“With new social distancing requirements in place, as well as reduced theatre availability, our ophthalmology patients have inevitably needed to wait longer than we’d wish for a procedure.

“These new facilities will give greater capacity with the aim of reducing waiting times.”

The suite is set to be built off site as a modular build, complete with equipment inside.

The trust claims this suite will be able to ‘treat more than 1,000 patients per year’ in a bid to aid its recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Somerset County Gazette: NEW THEATRE SUITE: Staff at Musgrove Park Hospital, ready and waiting for the new modular ophthalmic theatre suite

Matthew Bryant, chief operating officer at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, said there has ‘inevitably’ been an impact on waiting times as theroutine care has been disrupted for most of the past year.

“We know how important the care we provide for people is, and we are working as fast as we can to see people and reduce waiting times,” he said.

“The new suite will be the first time there has been a permanent dedicated day surgery theatre for eye surgery in Taunton and we expect to offer patients a more positive experience in a better environment.”

Healthwatch Somerset, an independent organisation who gathers patient and public feedback about services, has said long waits for treatment can have an impact on a patient’s quality of life.

“Later in the summer we will be launching a new project to compare the experiences of people who are treated within the 18-week time limit and those who wait for over 40 weeks to receive treatment,” said a spokesperson for the organisation.

“We will also investigate how waiting times for treatment in Somerset have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Although the ophthalmic suite isn’t yet welcoming patients, the expansion of eye services has already begun in Somerset, with a hub for macular and glaucoma care at Chard Hospital, as well as a single point of contact for the ophthalmology service so patients can be seen at the provider with the lowest waiting time.

Mr Bryant said the additional capacity would help reduce waiting times.

Another area in Somerset that has done its best to combat long ophthalmology waiting lists is Bristol Eye Hospital.

It used the NHS Nightingale Hospital Bristol (originally built to cope with extra Covid-19 patients) from November 26 2020 until March 31 2021.

They managed to treat 7,177 extra ophthalmology patients by using this extra space.

Somerset County Gazette:

A spokesperson for Bristol Eye Hospital said: “Although we are not currently using the Nightingale Hospital, we did use it for four months.

“It was helpful during the pandemic, as waiting areas were more restricted and so we – like many other hospitals – were looking at various ways we could see patients.

“And one of the ways to combat this was to use the Nightingale Hospital. Patients were cared for by the same clinical teams as they normally would be at Bristol Eye Hospital.”

Although University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust has 7,911 ophthalmology patients on its waiting list according to the June 2021 figures, the patients average waiting time is just 10.2 weeks. This has reduced from 16.8 weeks in June 2020.

However, they are no longer using the Bristol Eye Hospital, meaning while this helped to reduce the lengthy waiting times, it was not a permanent fix.

The ophthalmic theatre suite being built at Musgrove Park Hospital will be a permanent feature at the hospital, but will it be good enough to dramatically reduce the waiting lists?

Well, according to Mr Bryant, the new ophthalmic suite ‘is a very important part’ of the hospital’s Covid-19 recovery, so we shall just have to wait and see.

If you would like to share your views about waiting times with Healthwatch Somerset visit their website

Have you been affected by the long waiting times during the pandemic?

Feel free to email me at