A survey has found that health service waiting times and staff shortages have undermined public confidence in the health system

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Public satisfaction with the NHS nosedived to its lowest level for a quarter of a century during the pandemic, a survey has found.

The 2021 British Social Attitudes (BSA) poll—considered the gold standard measure of public opinion—identified waiting times, staff shortages, and a lack of Government funding as key areas of concern.

The findings, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), suggested that satisfaction with GP services had reached its lowest level since the survey began in 1983. However, support for the founding principles of the NHS remained strong.

Funding squeeze

Headline results from the survey, carried out in September and October last year using a representative sample of 3112 people across Britain, have been published by the King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust.

Dan Wellings, Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund, said that low confidence in the NHS’s ability to deliver may have been ‘exacerbated’  by COVID-19, but that the results reflect ‘a decade-long funding squeeze and a workforce crisis that has been left unaddressed for far too long’.

Record falls in satisfaction were also seen across all individual NHS services, including GP and hospital services.

Among the main findings from the survey:

  • Overall satisfaction with the NHS fell to 36%—an unprecedented 17% drop since 2020, and the lowest level of satisfaction recorded since 1997
  • The reduction in satisfaction was seen across all ages, income groups, sexes, and political stances
  • The main reasons people gave for being dissatisfied with the NHS overall were waiting times for GP and hospital appointments (65%), staff shortages (46%), and a perception that the Government does not spend enough money on the NHS (40%).

Dissatisfaction with GP services

Public satisfaction with GP services—historically the service with the highest levels of public satisfaction—fell by 30% since 2019 to just 38%. Satisfaction with GP services is now the lowest of any NHS service, except for dentistry, according to the analysis. Only 33% of respondents said they were satisfied with NHS dentistry services, compared with 60% in 2019, while satisfaction with accident and emergency services also fell sharply, down 15% (from 54% to 39%).

When respondents were asked to rate what the most important priorities for the NHS should be, the top three they cited were making it easier to get a GP appointment (48%), improving waiting times for planned operations (47%), and increasing the number of staff in the NHS (47%).

Of those who were satisfied with the NHS overall, the top reason was because the NHS was free at the point of use (78%), followed by the quality of NHS care (65%) and that it had a good range of services (58%).

Staffing shortages

Professor John Appleby, Director of Research and Chief Economist at the Nuffield Trust, said: ‘We know that the NHS and social care services face a long and difficult journey to recover performance, and now public satisfaction is rapidly falling too.’

Responding to analysis, Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said he was ‘saddened’  by the findings, which ‘reflected a service working under crippling staffing and resource pressures following the pandemic’.

He commented: ‘The GP workforce is no longer big enough to meet demand. Successive governments have failed to invest in our service and GP numbers have declined while our workload has escalated in volume and complexity. More GPs are in training than ever before—but when more are leaving the profession than entering it, we are fighting a losing battle.’

The RCGP renewed its call for the Government to deliver on its promise to deliver 6000 additional GPs by 2024.

Andrew Goddard, President of the Royal College of Physicians, said the Government needed to recognise ‘that people’s dissatisfaction is ultimately with those who sent health and care staff into the pandemic under-equipped and in too few numbers’.

He added: ‘The impact of COVID-19 was felt more severely than it needed to be—by staff and patients—because of historic understaffing, and that needs to change now.’

Saffron Cordery, Deputy Chief Executive of NHS Providers, said that research among its own members identified workforce shortages as ‘having a serious and detrimental impact on services, slowing down progress in tackling backlogs, and hampering their ability to retain staff’.

She said: ‘The Government must address this by accepting the solution offered by an amendment to the Health and Care Bill going through Parliament—with a commitment to publishing regular assessments of how many health and social care staff will be needed in the coming years.’

NatCen will publish further results from the BSA survey in the autumn.

This article was originally published on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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