By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Thousands of children face lengthy delays for neurology support as NHS chiefs say they have faced “unprecedented” demand levels amid Covid.
A total of 2,821 youngsters in the county, aged under 18, remain on a waiting list following referrals to the North East London Foundation Trust (NELFT). Around 2,100 children are based in east Kent.
Neurodevelopmental conditions include autism, dyslexia and ADHD.
A total of 1,697 children, 60% of the entire backlog, have faced delays of more than 52 weeks for treatments, according to the latest NELFT data.
Gill Burns, who is the NELFT’s director of children’s services for Kent and Essex, said: “I don’t find that acceptable. Nor do I feel assured by that.”
Explaining the underlying causes, she said some parents had ignored reminder letters sent to them about their appointments while others had submitted DNA sample of their child multiple times – meaning they are overbooked.
She also told a virtual panel of KCC’s health scrutiny committee it had been the “most challenging year” for the service as the number of referrals has risen sharply since the first national lockdown between March and June.
Concerns have been raised by Kent County Council’s (KCC) health scrutiny committee. Issues have centred around child waiting times, service provision because of capacity issues and a lack of communication.
On Tuesday, Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox (Lab), the younger persons’ champion on Gravesham Borough Council, called for greater “accountability” over the historic failings and requested urgent action to speed up the process.
Cllr Cox, a member of KCC’s health scrutiny committee, said: “I am perturbed to be told this is a coronavirus problem when clearly the statistics shows it’s a constant of backlog and delay.
“People waiting over 52 weeks? Covid hasn’t been with us for 52 weeks. This is a continuous problem and while Covid has exacerbated that, this is not new.”
NELFT took over the running of the service three years ago. It carries out the work on behalf of the Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).
However the number of neurodevelopmental assessments has more than doubled over the last 12 months. NELFT received 1,358 referrals from July to September compared to 607 in December 2019 and March 2020.
Demand is said to reflect a “national pattern” as the UK-wide Covid lockdown has worsened children’s mental health, particularly for those out of school.
Ms Burns said: “For some children, who do not have a lot of social skills or big peer support network, their education setting is the only outlet they have and we do tend to see an increase in anxiety and behaviour issues.”
Actions have been taken to reduce the backlog, such as hiring more senior staff. The CCG has also injected £600,000 of extra investment to children’s mental health services to manage the “intense pressure” it faces.
Jane O’Rourke, the Kent and Medway CCG’s associate director for the children and maternity commissioning team, said: “Lessons from the pandemic are being incorporated into the way we work in the future.”
Nationally some 128,000 children face delayed autism diagnosis. Analysis of data by Autism Parenting Magazine reveals children with suspected autism are at risk of being un- or misdiagnosed as a result of vital services being shut during the pandemic. Reports suggest that, due to closures and limited resources, parents are finding it increasingly difficult to spot signs of autism and access routes to diagnosis even when they do.
Wait-times for appointments following first referral are at an all-time high due to ‘unprecedented’ demand. Figures released by the NHS in 2019 suggested that some patients waited over 19 weeks for their first mental health appointments, with an average wait time in 10 out of 25 English health trusts of 137 days, against a target of 91 days. With limitations being placed on health care services due to coronavirus measures, this number may spike further.