There are more people waiting for NHS treatment than ever before: recent estimates stand at more than seven million across the UK.
There's also a 'hidden' waiting list of people who haven't come forward for treatment (or weren't able to) during the pandemic. The National Audit Office recently estimated that elective care waiting lists in England alone could reach 12 million by March 2025 if just half of these 'missing' patients return.
The numbers are alarming, and have been making headlines for months. The NHS has released a plan for tackling the backlog, including increased funding, new surgical hubs and diagnostic centres, and greater access for patients to personalised information about waits for treatment, but big changes take time, so what should you do if you or a loved one needs help in the shorter term?
Being stuck on a waiting list can be very difficult emotionally and physically, especially if your condition causes you severe pain or discomfort, but the right support and information can make a difference.
Listen to our podcast as we dive deep into your options when you are put on a waiting list for NHS treatment
If you're being referred for treatment, here's what to ask so you are in the know about next steps:
If you're faced with a lengthy wait, and it's feasible for you, you can also choose to go private.
It's a popular choice for those with musculoskeletal issues. New figures from (the Private Healthcare Information Network) show that self-funded hip replacements increased 167% from July - September 2019 to the same period in 2021, while self-funded knee replacements saw a 127% rise.
Going private tends to be a simpler prospect for one-off surgeries such as these, but there still may be some admin involved in getting a referral and choosing a consultant, and it is of course expensive.
Getting a clear picture of what private treatment will cost you isn't always easy.
For example, a knee replacement could cost anywhere from £9,000 to more than £16,000.
There are a few different variables, and a lot depends on whether you're self-paying or using private health insurance.
This should cover most costs, depending on your policy, but it's important to check, says Matt James, chief executive of the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN).
'If your GP has referred you to a specialist for a consultation, contact your insurer to check that they will cover costs for that specialist and hospital.'
He notes that you usually need to do this again if you're referred for further treatment. There are often yearly limits on outpatient services such as diagnostic scans and physiotherapy, so keep asking questions to avoid nasty financial surprises.
The initial outpatient consultation fee for a private appointment is usually between £150 and £300, which you'll be informed of in advance.
If you're offered further tests such as X-rays, or any immediate minor treatment on the day, the costs are unlikely to be included in this initial fee - so you should ask about this.
Your consultant must send you details of the costs for any proposed surgery in advance, and you may want to compare those with other consultants or hospitals.
We've gathered self-pay prices for three popular surgical procedures across the UK, and they vary considerably:
There are two main ways to self-pay for private care:
Going private does mean keeping much more on top of your care and the associated costs, but if you want to be seen sooner, it's almost certainly quicker, and you may decide the pay-off is worth it.
Like Covid itself, the treatment backlog isn't affecting people equally.
Some regions are much worse hit than others, and even within regions, your surrounding hospitals might have significantly longer waits than the average.
While the government has announced plans to allow people to travel further afield to cut waits, realistically this is unlikely to be practical or affordable for many.
And of course the option to go private simply isn't there for a lot of people - or it involves going into significant debt.
How opting for private healthcare affects the NHS on a broader scale is complicated.
It's important to make the best choice for you and your health, but the theory that going private alleviates pressure on the NHS by rerouting some of the backlog doesn't quite work in practice: often the consultants end up being the same, so capacity issues may remain.