Patients waiting months to see a physiotherapist in England

Patients waiting months to see a physiotherapist in England

Research from Equipsme in 2019 found patients with strains and sprains ran the risk of developing long term mobility problems as physiotherapy waiting times rose in England, in some cases up to four months. 

Three years and an entire pandemic on, and NHS waiting lists are acknowledged to be at an all time high – including for routine musculoskeletal issues.

NHS England does not specifically publish waiting times for physiotherapy referrals. However, in 2019 Equipsme sent freedom of information requests to local NHS Trusts, which revealed that patients were already waiting an average of 45 days for routine and 18 days for urgent appointments. Waiting times were also higher than they were two years before in 2017 (42 days for routine, 16 for urgent).

In 21 of the 106 NHS Trusts which responded to the request and held the data, patients had had to wait for over two months (60 days) for a routine appointment.

Patients referred to East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust faced the longest wait – waiting four months (132 days) for routine appointments in the year to April 2019, compared to two months (77 days) two years previously. Patients referred for an urgent appointment were seen within an average of 34 days. The Trust saw a 15% increase in patient referrals in just two years, with 25,748 people booking in for a physiotherapy appointment in 2019.

The Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had the longest waiting list for urgent appointments, with 54 days between referral and first appointment.

The shortest wait for physiotherapy was in Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust, where 27,154 patients waited an average of 14 days for a routine appointment and just 1 day for an urgent appointment.

Chartered physiotherapist Sammy Margo warned that pains or injuries requiring physiotherapy treatment such as strains and sprains could turn into long term health problems if left untreated.

“Those acute injuries can become chronic problems,” she said. “Ongoing pain and the consequent reduced mobility may mean the start of deteriorating health, for example if it leads to an inactive lifestyle which increases the risk of obesity and heart disease.

“Mobility and dexterity are all part of the big picture. Those who experience ongoing back pain may also experience a mental health problem, for example.

“Early intervention may prevent problems from escalating into more serious issues. It can reduce the need for long term care for an ageing population. It is never just about ‘back pain’ – it’s about quality of life.”

Equipsme managing director and founder Matthew Reed said: “Bone, joint and muscle problems are the second biggest cause of people being too unwell to work – second only to minor illnesses such as coughs and colds.

“These waiting times should be of concern to any business that wants a healthy workforce just as much as they should concern politicians.”

NHS Scotland reports that 44.9% of patients referred for physiotherapy treatment were seen within four weeks between April and June 2019. In Wales,63% of patients were seen within four weeks in September, the most recent figures available.

Most patients require a referral from their GP to see a physiotherapist, with the appointment taking place at a hospital. However, some regions have since been moved onto a new a system to allow patients to make an initial appointment with a physiotherapist based in GP practices.

Of the Trusts that were offering piloting physiotherapy appointments within GP surgeries in 2019, the average waiting time was not much lower. Patients waited 44 days for routine and 16 days for urgent appointments.

The longest waiting times

Waiting times (days) for routine physiotherapy appointments
(year to 4 April 2019)

East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust 132
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 106
South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust 101
Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust - Berkshire West 91
St George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 87
King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust 82
Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust 81
Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust 80
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust 77
The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust 77