Julian Hartley, chief executive of the trust - one of the largest and busiest in the UK - apologised to all those whose care had been interrupted by the “extraordinarily hard” past two years and said he feels a “heavy duty to do right by those patients”.
He sat down with the Yorkshire Evening Post to discuss major work going on behind the scenes to help drive down the numbers of those waiting for elective treatment; projects which aim to boost the hospitals’ treatment capacity, improve access to get more people in and work with other partners within the city’s healthcare system to use “every ounce of spare capacity”.
The scale of the issue was also laid bare in a recent report prepared for the city’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG)’s governing body, which met on Wednesday, and described “close to 100 per cent” bed occupancy levels at LTHT, waits of “more than 12 hours” in A&E and inpatients having to stay in areas “not usually used for overnight care”.
These are among the many factors which have impacted surgical activity and fed into the growing backlog since it originated when hospitals were initially told to stand down all non-urgent care at the start of the pandemic, to make way for the influx of Covid patients.
Further waves have seen similar suspensions of elective procedures, and, combined also with staff isolations, wards taken over by Covid patients and strict infection prevention and control measures - which take up vital time and space - the hospital’s level of activity has been forced to reduce.
Mr Hartley said: “Everyone has been incredible in managing the surge of patients coming into hospital with Covid. But of course, on top of that, we have had lots of patients rightly coming to us for urgent care. We have had a very busy A&E, been very busy on the wards.
“And at the same time, we are trying to do more elective work - planned care, people coming in for the operations they need.
“That adds a sort of third level of challenge, to make sure that we are creating space and staff to see all those patients who have missed out on their treatment. And consequently the waiting lists - as they are throughout the NHS - are significant.”
He said: “I think about it every day. I read letters from patients that I get and our teams are in regular communication with patients that have waited a long time.
“I feel a great responsibility and a very heavy duty to do right by those patients. And I want to reassure them that I’m thinking about you - as are our executive team and board at Leeds Teaching Hospitals - every day of every week.”
Mr Hartley said the trust was actually making good headway into the backlog towards the back end of last year, before “Omicron knocked us for six”.
And with the number of Covid patients in hospital on the rise, currently at around 130, the pressures on the hospital remain high.
Mr Hartley said: “I don’t think we are over it yet. [But] I think our priority has really shifted to how we can get more patients through our operating theatres and so on while managing the ongoing impact of Omicron and new variants.”
Recovery is already underway, with more operations being carried out in February (2,337) than in January (2,212) but hospital bosses have come up with a series of measures to try and return pre-pandemic levels, and beyond.
*A new ‘appointments hub’, which will allow patients to book and amend appointments, to make the process “more convenient and user-friendly”.
*More operations at weekends in a number of specialities, and Mr Hartley expressed his gratitude to the staff who had signed up for more weekend shifts to help tackle the backlog.
*More day surgery, so patients who are suitable don’t need to stay in overnight.
*Increasing the operating capacity at both Leeds General Infirmary and St James’s Hospital with the addition of three more theatres.
*Additional MRI and CT facilities being brought in - a key part of elective procedures.
*Funding has been approved for two ‘elective care hubs’ at Wharfedale Hospital and Chapel Allerton Hospital, where extra theatres will be built to carry out planned procedures away from the busy main hospital sites in Leeds.
*Leeds Children’s Hospital is also holding ‘super Saturdays’ where hundreds of extra appointments take place and new technologies are trialled, including using virtual reality to distract children during medical procedures.
*More face-to face appointments as well as virtual appointments.
*Working with partners to support people in their own homes or in the community.
*Sharing patients between hospital trusts across West Yorkshire, and matching better with each hospital's speciality, which Mr Hartley said will “benefit all of us”.
Mr Hartley said: “We aim to get back to the same level as 2019 by the end of March. We are making good progress towards that but I would say it’s still a challenge, which is why we’re doing all these additional things to balance the urgent care, with Covid care and with elective care.
“Our teams are doing a great job every day to find that balance and make those key judgements.”
Hospital chiefs hope these extra measures will help the trust surpass 2019 levels and have signed up to a national target to carry out 30 per cent more elective procedures by 2024/25 than they did pre-pandemic.
Mr Hartley said he feels “optimistic but also cautious” about the future and wants to “keep reinforcing the health and wellbeing and care and compassion for patients and staff after what has been an extraordinarily hard [time] for all us”.
He said: “Our staff have really endured two years now of different waves of pressures and have been astonishingly resilient, committed and dedicated.
“But I think we all hope that 2022 spring/summer starts to see us being able to do far more elective work so we are able to show to the public and patients and the staff in those areas that we are starting to recover some of the ground lost because of the pandemic.”
To all those still waiting, he added: “I would say I’m really sorry that they have had their care interrupted and that we are determined to get their treatment and operation [carried out] as soon as we’re able to.
“If they have any particular worries, anxieties or concerns they should get in touch with us.
“We are working flat out with all of our teams in the hospital and outside the hospital to make sure that we get through as many cases as we can in order to serve the people of Leeds and West Yorkshire.”
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