NHS waiting list promise likely to be broken

A milestone in the labour government’s drive to ensure that no one waits more than 18 weeks for hospital treatment looks set to be missed, suggest latest figures from the Department of Health.

By the end of March, 85 per cent of patients needing hospital admission should have been treated within 18 weeks of being referred by their family doctors to remain on track to meet the National Health Service’s target that by the end of the year at least 90 per cent of all patients will have been treated within that period.

Latest figures from the department, however, show that at the end of February, with just four weeks to go to that staging post, only 75 per cent of patients had been admitted within 18 weeks.

If the milestone is to be met a 10 percentage points improvement in a month will be required. That suggests the target will be missed, though possibly only narrowly and chiefly in orthopaedics.

For patients whose treatment can be completed without the need for admission, the NHS came closer to meeting its goal. In February, 86 per cent of patients were being treated within 18 weeks against the milestone for the end of March of 90 per cent.

The figures show that a third of patients complete their treatment within six weeks and just more than half within 12 weeks.

However, the scale of the challenge in eliminating the longest waits is shown by the fact that of the 298,762 patients admitted to hospital in February, 3 per cent – almost 9,000 – had been waiting more than a year and 62,000 had been waiting more than 6 months.

In addition, only 60 per cent of patients admitted with orthopaedic problems – one of the biggest specialities – were treated within 18 weeks, suggesting that part of the milestone is almost certain not to be reached.

The department, however, said: “We are expressing cautious optimism that when the March figures are published they will demonstrate achievement of the milestone.”

The department now claims it can report waiting times accurately for 96 per cent of patients – including the wait for an outpatient appointment, any diagnostics needed and then the wait for an operation.

However, some analysts are sceptical about the data as some primary care trusts are reporting “clock stop and start” times for many more patients than they appear to have treated: producing figures for the “completeness” of their data of more than 100 per cent.

“This has to make you very sceptical about the reliability of the data,” said John Appleby, the chief economist at the King’s Fund health think-tank.

The Department of Health said the discrepancy is thought to be due to some primary care trusts counting routine follow-up appointments after treatment as new completed treatments.


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