Some trusts included in the national data said their statistics may have included patients who were offered an earlier appointment, or those given a “block booking” of several appointments which were cancelled en masse. Other trusts said they had no way to establish if the same appointment had been repeatedly cancelled.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association said the chaos undermined public confidence in the NHS, with most patients unable to choose to go elsewhere.
“For some patients, the most difficult and aggravating aspect of their experience is not the care they receive but the failures and bungles of NHS administration. Cancelled appointments for treatment, or delays in getting appointments at all, can add massively to the distress of being unwell.
“Patients are not customers – they cannot take their ‘custom’ elsewhere. But at times the NHS offers a level of service that would prompt customers of banks, internet service providers or many other businesses to switch their provider. These experiences can undermine patients’ confidence in the NHS as an efficient, well-run system.”
Lillie Wenzel, Fellow at The King’s Fund, said too many NHS patients were forced to battle with NHS system over cancelled appointments, lost test results and other failings in administrative processes.
“The dramatic rise in the number of cancelled appointments is worrying. Waiting for a diagnosis or treatment is stressful enough without the added anxiety caused by repeatedly cancelled appointments,” she said.
The think tank is about to launch a research project, to examine the impact of “bad admin” on patient care.
“The NHS is under significant pressure and there are numerous reasons why an appointment might be cancelled. Managing this requires effective administrative processes and clear communication with patients, but in reality, and despite the efforts of many NHS staff, patients’ experience of care is often hampered by poor administration.
“We hope to establish whether the negative experience some people have, and the anecdotal evidence many of us hear from friends and family, is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Trusts said they provided care as quickly as possible and apologised for the inconvenience when patients suffered repeated cancellations.
They said they were coping with growing demand and attempted to prioritise the most clinically urgent cases.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Patient satisfaction with outpatient services is the highest ever recorded, but while the proportion of appointments which are cancelled by hospitals remains low, we recognise it can be inconvenient if it happens to you or a loved one.
“That’s why the NHS Long Term Plan sets out how – through a combination of more services being provided closer to home and better use of technology – we will deliver an increasing amount of routine care in a way that’s more convenient for patients, and reduces pressure on hospital teams.”
Cancelled four times – despite a suspected stroke
Andrew Marsden, 50, a stroke survivor, was due to see his hospital consultant last October – but the appointment was cancelled four times.
In one case, he received his cancellation letter at 7.30pm the night before the appointment, after administrators dispatched it by taxi.
Even when he went to see his GP, after suffering a suspected repeat attack, the hospital continued to postpone his consultations – causing a delay of four months before he saw a specialist.
Mr Marsden, from Oldham, who ran a plumbing and building business until he suffered a stroke in 2017, said: “I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I was really frustrated.”
“I had been recovering from my stroke gradually over the two years, I’d had some problems with my foot dropping, and not being able to remember words, when I suddenly had an incident in the supermarket which was much more severe.”
He made an appointment with his GP, who thought it may have been a transient ischemic attack, also known as a mini-stroke.
As Mr Marsden was due to have his hospital appointment – which had already been postponed once – the following week, no further action were taken. But in fact, the new appointment was cancelled three more times.
Despite Mr Marsden’s pleas, administrators at Pennine Acute Hospitals trust said there was nothing they could do.
It wasn’t until February of this year that he finally saw a junior doctor, who was running late, and apologised for eating a MacDonalds during the consultation, Mr Marsden said.
And it took until April – a full six months after the appointment was due – that he finally saw the consultant.
“She was half an hour late, didn’t have my notes, and didn’t know anything about the recent incident – she thought I was there because of the first stroke, back in 2017,” he said.
The grandfather of two, who has closed down his building firm since the stroke, but continues run his plumbing services, said that in many of his encounters with the NHS, he was struck by how “disorganised” and “unprofessional” its administration was.
“It seemed absolutely bizarre to cancel by taxi – they’ve surely got email or phones like everyone else?” he said.
“The costs must really mount up if they are cancelling patients so regularly,” he added.
Pennine Acute Hospitals trust did not respond to requests for comment.
Poor handwriting caused a four-month wait for a scan
Arthritis sufferer Hilary Chilvers was left waiting almost four months for a vital MRI scan – because staff could not read an NHS employee’s “illegible” handwriting.
Mrs Chilvers was promised a scan within six weeks of her appointment at Haywood Hospital, in Stoke-on trent, in March.
But almost two months later, she received a letter from the NHS saying the request had been rejected, and that the process would start again.
When she complained to the Patient Advice and Liason Service at Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, she was told that the delays were caused by poor handwriting.
“My call was referred to the imaging department. Here I was told that the request had been rejected because the submitted form was illegible. It was now clear that the rejection was due illegible handwriting,” said Mrs Chilvers, 63, from Newcastle.
“It makes you wonder how widespread this issue is,” she added.
“This delay was not due to funding, over-demand or equipment availability – it was due to handwriting.”
Mrs Chilvers, who has arthritis in her knees and hips, was finally given a date in July – some four months after her referral.
Attempts to persuade the NHS to see her sooner failed, and the only date she was offered was during a holiday she had advised them about.
“It appears the NHS is unable to compensate for its own systems’ failings,” she said.
A trust spokesman said: “We regret that Ms Chilvers has experienced a delay in receiving an acceptable appointment and continue to work to resolve this as soon as possible.
“We are looking to implement an electronic referral pathway which will help to improve the process.”