Thousands of disabled adults and children, including those with the highest and most complex needs, are having to wait more than four months for an NHS wheelchair, official health figures show.
In one part of the country more than two-thirds of patients referred to the wheelchair service face waits of more than 18 weeks, or roughly four months, to get the help they need. Besides preventing them from getting around independently, and the mental health problems that can come from the resulting social isolation, a leading disability charity says disabled people can also be left with physical pain if forced to use poorly fitting or unsuitable chairs while they wait for upgrades and adaptations.
Data published by NHS England shows 16.5% of patients – one in six – were waiting longer than the NHS target time of 18 weeks for a wheelchair, equipment for a wheelchair, or wheelchair modifications between October and December last year. This represents more than 6,000 adults and almost 1,600 children, of which thousands were registered as having high or specialist needs. The figures include new patients as well as re-referred patients whose needs may have changed or whose current equipment needs adjusting or modifying.
The proportion of patients waiting longer than the 18 week target has worsened compared to pre-pandemic levels. During the same period in 2019, 14.9% of adult and 17.6% of child patients were waiting longer than 18 weeks for provision.Last year these figures rose to 15.6% and 20.9% respectively.
NHS guidance says it is of “paramount importance” that patients are able to access the right wheelchair and equipment for their needs quickly. Local NHS services are expected to get chairs to every adult and at least 92% of children within the 18-week window.
Chief executive of Disability Rights UK, Kamran Mallick, said the waits patients are currently facing are “unacceptable”, and that people are being denied a fundamental right. Mallick said the government needs to prioritise the rights of disabled people by investing in services and infrastructure. The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) declined to comment on the figures, referring NationalWorld instead to NHS England – who also declined to comment, and sent us back to the DHSC.
“Wheelchairs are not just a mode of transport, they are an essential piece of equipment that allows Disabled people to live independent lives,” Mr Mallick said. “It’s unacceptable that thousands of disabled people are being denied this fundamental right and are forced to wait for months on end for the equipment they need to navigate the world around them.
“A poorly fitted or unsuitable wheelchair can lead to various physical and mental health issues, ranging from pain and discomfort to social isolation.
“As a society, we have a moral obligation to ensure that everyone has equal access to the resources they need to thrive, regardless of their abilities. It’s time for the government to take action and prioritise the needs of disabled people by investing in wheelchair services and ensuring accessible infrastructure that allows wheelchair users to flourish.”
NHS Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Integrated Care Board was found to have the highest proportion of people waiting over 18 weeks at 64.4%, or 186 people. NHS Surrey Heartlands Integrated Care Board had the second highest proportion,at 43%.
NHS Humber and North Yorkshire Integrated Care Board was found to have the overall greatest number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks at 545, followed by NHS Kent and Medway Integrated Care Board with 529 and NHS Sussex Integrated Care Board with 471.