Hidden cost of COVID-19: BBC Panorama: NHS Wait or Pay?

27 September 2021

New research commissioned by Versus Arthritis has been featured in a new BBC Panorama episode ‘NHS: Wait or Pay?’ that aired Monday 27 September at 7.30pm on BBC One.

The findings reveal that half of people with arthritis who are currently waiting for surgery are facing a significant average cost of £1739 a year to keep their pain at bay, through things like private healthcare, physio appointments and over-the-counter painkillers.

In the programme presenter Victoria Derbyshire met people who have created crowdfunding campaigns or taken out loans to pay for private medical treatments because their time on the NHS waiting list is so long.

And she revealed exclusive research showing just how many people are now considering turning their backs on the NHS and going private instead.

Health inequality isn’t a new phenomenon

The Versus Arthritis research shows the pandemic has exacerbated health inequality, with many who can’t afford to foot the bill for interim treatments forced to live in pain.

We found that nearly two thirds (62%) of people with arthritis or a musculoskeletal condition, whose surgery had been delayed or cancelled due to COVID-19, said they are living in pain because they can’t afford the treatments they need.

Worse still, those on the lowest incomes are more likely to be forced to live in pain because they are unable to cover the financial burden of the condition, with many forced to cut back on essential spending to fund their care.

One in five (21%) whose surgery had been delayed or cancelled due to COVID-19 said they often go without basic needs including food or heating to pay for treatments needed to manage their pain.

Tracey Loftis, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Versus Arthritis commented:

“People with arthritis are being left to wait in agonising pain for months and years because of delays to treatment. Over the last year waiting times for people with arthritis have gone from poor to incredibly difficult, and it’s people with arthritis who are paying the price both physically and financially."

“We need to see UK Governments tackle the surgery backlog and that means protected funding to bring the numbers down waiting for joint replacements. But people still won't get treatment overnight, so we must also see a commitment to provide immediate support for the hundreds of thousands of people with arthritis awaiting surgery.”

The ‘delay or pay’ phenomenon

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, drastically impacting waiting times for joint replacement surgery, half (54%) of those waiting for surgery say they face increased costs to keep their pain at bay.

The study found that people with arthritis waiting for surgery have in last year spent an average of £1739 including:

  • £695.43 on physio treatments
  • £96.98 on over-the-counter medication
  • £89.61 for private healthcare (consultations and procedures)
  • and £32.56 on prescriptions.

Spiralling costs have led to two in five (43%) of those whose costs have increased while waiting for surgery, concerned they won’t be able to foot the bill over the next 6 months, while a third (33%) are worried about how they will pay for Christmas.

The physical pain of waiting for surgery, combined with the stress and emotional pressure of spiralling costs is also having a detrimental impact on the health and mental wellbeing of those waiting. Half (49%) of those whose surgery has been delayed or cancelled due to COVID-19, said the cost of treatments is having a negative impact on their mental health, while two in five (43%) said they regularly worry about not being able to pay for treatments they need.

“I haven’t left my house for a year now, apart from going to my hospital appointments.”

61-year-old Brenda, from Petersfield, was featured in the BBC Panorama episode. She's waiting for a double hip replacement after developing severe osteoarthritis at the end of 2019, which has left her housebound, unable to walk and out-of-work.

"It’s like standing on jagged glass."

I used to enjoy swimming, running and walking my dog, but in less than six months I became immobile because of the pain in my hips.

With the pain and the pain medication comes incredible fatigue, which is way beyond just feeling a bit tired. Then with the lack of mobility comes a significant loss of muscle mass and overall health and wellbeing. My knees have also now started to deteriorate.

Before arthritis I worked a busy job in a London law firm, but now I can’t work, walk or drive. I've had to sell my house so I could move into a ground floor flat without stairs. I would love to go back to my career, not just because of the financial pressures, but to regain my normal life. This is simply impossible while I’m waiting for surgery.

“It's not just medical bills, arthritis adds a cost to your daily life."

I initially thought this was a temporary situation, as did my daughter, so she was initially able to help me with normal day to day activities like cooking, shopping, cleaning and dog walking. But because I've been waiting for so long, I can't rely on my daughter anymore.

So along with my loss of income comes the expense of a cleaner, a dog walker, someone to paint my fence, put pictures up on my wall… the list goes on.

I feel so helpless. Last summer I woke up crying every morning, I would get so depressed about the pain. Without a surgery date, you're just left hanging, thinking, ‘What am I going to do with my life?'

We’re pushing for change

Brenda’s story is a reminder that we have to keep fighting for the change that people with arthritis need, wherever they are in their joint replacement journey.

Whilst the government has recently announced major funding to tackle the essential surgery backlog, experts have warned it’s going to take time to bring waiting lists down. That’s why we’re campaigning to make sure everyone waiting has access to support from their local health service now to help manage their pain, look after their mental health and stay well for their operation.

We’re also pushing for promises from the government that the funding to bring down waiting times prioritises joint replacement operations. Read more about our Impossible to Ignore campaign.

We’re here whenever you need us

  • If you would like to talk to someone, you can call our free helpline on 0800 5200 520 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm).
  • Chat to our Arthritis Virtual Assistant, using the blue icon in the bottom right corner of this page.
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If you've experienced similar experiences to the ones mentioned in the programme or you want to share your story related to delayed or cancelled treatment, please email mystory@versusuarthritis.org