HL Deb 22 June 1990 vol 520 cc1173-5

11.24 a.m.

Lord Northfield asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, as has been suggested by some independent consultants, the length of waiting lists for the treatment of heart complaints under the National Health Service is so long as to endanger lives; and if so, what action they propose to take.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord is referring to press reports of a private study made by Mr. Michael Joy, consultant cardiologist at St. Peter's Hospital, Chertsey. The report of this study has not yet been seen by the regional health authority. We remain determined to tackle long waiting times for all forms of treatment. The Government's special waiting list fund of £19 million over four years has enabled hundreds of thousands of extra patients to be treated from the waiting lists.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware, reverting back to the previous Question, that those figures given publicly by Mr. Joy, the consultant cardiologist at St. Peter's Hospital, Chertsey, indicate that a study—not press reports, not tittle-tattle—of 1,000 patients over 10 years found that 23 of them died unnecessarily on the waiting list because they sometimes had to wait 18 months for operations?

I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that that is a totally unacceptable and tragic situation. My Question was not to give ventilation to those figures, deplorable and tragic though they are; but to ask what should be done about them. The noble Baroness did not answer that part of the Question.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the specific Question on the Order Paper refers to "some independent consultants". I believe that the particular consultant referred to is not independent, but is a paid member of the health authority. I referred to the waiting list initiative, which is designed specifically to meet the issue of people spending too long on waiting lists.

I said that waiting lists were down, but we must not be complacent. A huge amount of work is going on. John Yates and his team are going round the country looking to see why the waiting lists are long, and then ensuring that some positive action, including resources, is applied to bring those lists down. There are some notable successes. The Mersey region has been very successful in reducing its waiting lists after a visit from Mr. Yates and his team.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the report of the Health Education Authority published last week showing that deaths from heart disease in areas such as Manchester and Leeds are more than double the national average? When can those of us who live in those areas expect some Government initiative to put the figures in balance by bringing our figures down and not the southern half of the country's figures up?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. He is emphasising the need for preventive medicine. Enormous strides are being made by all health authorities, which believe that a good use of resources would be to do more in the field of preventive medicine.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that from 1950 to 1964 I was chairman of a hospital management committee? During that time we had no knowledge of hip replacements, heart transplants or indeed heart complaints in that sense. There has been such an advance in medical knowledge since 1964 that it has overtaken everything that is going on. People are waiting now for that which they never waited; they just died.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am again grateful to the noble Lord for those comments. They touch on some of the answers that I gave to the first Question. The advance of technology has meant that people are not dying because they are on waiting lists; they are being saved when they otherwise might have died. Again, it is a matter of perspective.

The Earl of Balfour

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I, and I am sure many other noble Lords, feel that it is a great pity that we are no longer allowed to die of natural causes?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in response to my noble friend I may say that I was almost tempted, as a tailpiece in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, to say that despite all the education and all the research we still drink too much, smoke too much and do a great deal that we know will shorten our lives. The noble Lord argues for freedom; I believe that debate will continue.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, of course it is true that there has been marvellous progress in medical science and in the health service during successive governments over 40 and more years.

However, is the noble Baroness aware that except during and immediately following industrial disputes the waiting lists and the waiting times in the National Health Service are higher than they have ever been since the National Health Service was created? Is she also aware that both Dr. Kaiser to whom I referred, and Mr. Michael Joy, consultant cardiologist of St. Peter's Hospital, Chertsey, in Surrey, told a conference of doctors last week that they expect the situation to become worse, not better, after the reorganisation of the National Health Service?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to industrial action. Clearly that does nothing at all for waiting lists other than exacerbate them. On the second part of his Question, I agree to differ with those who believe that the reforms will not make for a better National Health Service.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, has the noble Baroness seen the later part of Mr. Joy's remarks in which he said that a quarter of the patients about whom he was complaining—people on this long waiting list—were referred to private hospitals where they were seen within two or three weeks? None of the private patients died. Can we really be satisfied with this great gap between private provision and what is on offer in the National Health Service?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, again, the noble Lord has gone back to press comment. He read from reports in the press regarding the consultant concerned. The Independent chose to give prominence to that case but refused to print a letter from the health authority which would have put the figures in perspective.

I can say that the health authority concerned is not complacent about these matters. It is doing much to address the problem of treating people more quickly and effectively. Therefore, given that we do not live in an ideal world, much is being done by the health authority and hospitals themselves to improve the situation.