Will Nunn reports on the striking research about tonsillectomies taking place within the University of Birmingham

Written by Will Nunn
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A study published in the British Journal of General Practice from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research has found that as many as 87.5% of childhood tonsillectomies are unnecessary.

The researchers studied the medical records of 1.6 million children from more than 700 general practices across the UK between 2005 and 2016. Among this group 18,271 children had their tonsils out in that time but of those only 2,144 of those had actually had enough sore throats to justify the procedure. Nationwide this means 32,500 children have needless tonsillectomies; costing the NHS £36.9 million.

'Research suggests children with fewer sore throats don’t benefit enough to justify surgery, because the sore throats tend to go away anyway'

Currently children only qualify for a tonsillectomy if they meet certain criteria. They must have either had seven sore throats in one year, three in three successive years or five or more in two successive years. Among those sampled who had undergone the surgery, 12.4% had only five or six sore throats in the year, 44.7% had two to four and 9.9% had only one. These children had not qualified under current policy.

The study also revealed that 15,764 children had records showing they should have received treatment, meaning 13,620 children were not treated when they should have been.

This pattern changed little over the 12 years of the study, demonstrating a failure to apply correct procedure over an extended period of time.

Children with fewer sore throats do not gain as much from the procedure, since their sore throats tend to reduce in severity after a time regardless. However in children where the criteria are met and a tonsillectomy is performed, their conditions improved faster in the time following; therefore the surgery is worth carrying out for those who genuinely need it.

The result of these findings ought to prompt action to reevaluate how this treatments is applied. Tonsillectomies are a benefit to patients when performed in the correct cases, but the disparity between those who need the treatment and those who get it needs to be addressed. Doing so would cut down on unnecessary spending in the NHS and free up more time and resources for patients who are truly in need.