Winter comes early to the NHS - while GWH keeps on exceeding national cancer waiting time targets
The headlines are grim: record numbers of patients stuck in hospital beds after they are ready to leave - missed ambulance response time targets - NHS11 targets missed - emergency department waiting time standards missed.
What makes this week's set of NHS figures so different is that the feared 'winter pressures' have begun so early. In fact, as far as the NHS is concerned, last winter's pressures dragged on into summer and have now merged into the coming winter: the demand on NHS services is unprecedented.
It will be a tough winter for Great Western Hospitals Foundation Trust (GWH.) But there is one area of care where GWH is really excelling: cancer waiting times.
Talking with Lyndel Moore (Cancer Nurse Consultant) and Cathy Evans (Head of Business for GWH's cancer service), Marlborough News Online learned that at GWH in October 87.1 per cent of patients with an urgent referral from their doctors for a possible cancer began their first definite treatment within 62 days.
Nationally this key cancer waiting time standard was the only one of the eight measured cancer standards to be missed in October. Nationally 81.8 per cent of patients hit the 62-day waiting time.
If you drill down into GWH's cancer statistics you find that on many of the cancer-type specific 85 per cent targets they score 100 per cent.
How have they achieved this? GWH's Chief Executive, Nerissa Vaughan, told last week's board meeting: "The positive numbers can be attributed to several factors, including our dedicated surgical, medical and oncology teams and cutting-edge technology, including our own patient tracking system."
Every year about 3,000 patients are referred to GWH for cancer tests. Of those about 1,500 have their initial cancer treatment at GWH and some go on to hospitals with specialist units - at, for example, Oxford and Bristol. And GWH's cancer teams have close links with all the other providers of treatment.
Both Lyndel Moore and Cathy Evans were keen to stress that this success is the result of a Trust-wide effort - with clinical teams 'really engaged' in keeping patients moving along the treatment pathways. They cited as an example the radiology department's ability to make 'rapid responses' to patients' needs.
They said: "We work hard to monitor patients' progress - and unblock bottlenecks when they happen." They laughed a bit when I referred to this careful monitoring as 'a big jigsaw'. But fitting patients - none of whom have quite the same needs - into the right treatment pathways at the right time is a tremendous skill.
Reaching such outstanding figures is down to behind the scenes work making sure every patient's progress is noted and actioned. Weekly multi-disciplinary meetings monitor each patient and identify those that may - for any number of reasons - not be making the required progress through tests to treatment.
They have teams of coordinators who track patients on a daily basis. This is where the definition of 'front line' staff becomes fuzzy. These coordinators are a vital part of GWH's successful system. They do certainly do not qualify as being among those 'NHS bureaucrats' politicians love to hate.
These targets are not part of some league table competition among hospitals nor are they merely a stick for politicians to use to beat up on the NHS: early treatment of cancers really does save lives.