ONE in five physiotherapy patients are waiting more than four months for routine treatment amid cutbacks and staff shortages, with the west of Scotland worst affected.
Average waiting times have ballooned in the past year leaving thousands of patients unable to access therapies which could enable them to return to work or avoid orthopaedic surgery.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Scotland warned that a “false economy” of cost-cutting and an increasing number of physiotherapists being "pulled" from community into acute care was storing up problems for struggling A&E departments, GPs and orthopaedic wards.
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Research by CSP Scotland found that the percentage of patients in Scotland waiting more than 16 weeks for musculoskeletal (MSK) services increased from six per cent to 20 per cent between September 2015 and September 2016 as an extra 14,000 joined the waiting list. A total of 49,000 patients are now waiting for physiotherapy, compared to around 28,000 a decade ago.
In South Ayrshire, a failure to fill vacancies due to financial constraints left some 8000 routine physiotherapy patients waiting more than 50 weeks for treatment, against the Scottish Government's national target of four weeks.
In NHS Lanarkshire, only 37 per cent of patients are being seen within the four week target, far short of the Government's 90 per cent benchmark, but the health board is planning to cut a further nine physiotherapist posts this year on top of nearly three shed last year.
The Society has also written to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, where cost savings of £281,000 will equate to more than eight full-time physiotherapy posts being axed.
Sara Conroy, a physiotherapist and professional adviser to the CSP in Scotland, said: “Physiotherapy is needed more than ever to reduce pressures on A&E, GP services and orthopaedic services. Cutting back on physiotherapy is short sighted and a false economy.
"Long waiting times risk patients’ conditions becoming chronic. That’s more costly for the NHS to treat, but it could cost the patient their health and their ability to work.”
The MSK service provides physiotherapy for arthritis pain, back and neck aches, joint problems, sports injuries and post-surgery rehabilitation for orthopaedic patients following procedures such as knee or hip replacements. Although post-surgery patients are prioritised as "urgent" cases, CSP Scotland warned that non-urgent patients "can't get through" and were being left to deteriorate.
Ms Conroy said there was evidence of a "huge number" of physiotherapy patients in Ayrshire now turning up in A&E instead.
It comes despite a surplus of graduate physiotherapists a decade ago. In 2006, a survey by CSP Scotland found that more than 80 per cent of new graduates were unemployed, despite warnings that the ageing population would spur demand for physiotherapy.
Kenryck Lloyd-Jones, spokesman for CSP Scotland, said many of those graduates had been "lost to the profession".
He added that a workforce audit was needed to determine where physiotherapists are being deployed amid anecdotal evidence that hospitals are eating into community provision.
He said: "At the moment we don't actually have national statistics or even health board-wide statistics on what physios we have where - we can only say an overall number of physiotherapists.
"What we can say is, we cannot sustain further losses to capacity within MSK physiotherapy outpatient services."
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "The majority of musculoskeletal patients are currently seen within four weeks and almost 80 per cent are seen within 12 weeks, but we accept there is still much more to do to support NHS Boards to meet the target.
"We are sharing learning from best performing boards and working to identify local solutions. Improvements include work to reduce the number of patients who do not attend their appointments."