NHS chiefs warn of rising hospital waiting times

Hospital waiting room Hospitals are expected to see patients within 18 weeks in England

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Financial problems in the NHS are likely to cause a rise in waiting times in England, health chiefs believe.

Mike Farrar, the head of the NHS Confederation, said the difficulties could even lead to the 18-week limit for elective operations being broken.

He made the warning after feedback from senior NHS managers showed many feared it would get harder for patients to access care in the next 12 months.

But ministers insisted waiting times would remain low.

The NHS is currently meeting the 18-week standard overall.

However, the national figure masks the fact that a growing number of areas are experiencing difficulties.

The latest monthly statistics revealed a third of trusts were in breach of the limit for inpatients - double the number from a year ago.

This research by the NHS Confederation showed many health chiefs expected the situation to get worse.

The group, which represents managers, polled bosses working across the NHS in hospital, mental health and ambulance trusts. Private firms running dedicated NHS clinics were also quizzed.

'Very serious'

They received 287 responses - only a third of the total they polled - but Mr Farrar said it still provided clear evidence of the pressures the NHS was under.

Nine in 10 described the financial situation as very serious with nearly half of them saying it was the worst they had ever seen.

Hospital waiting times

  • Hospitals have to see 90% of patients within 18 weeks
  • The 10% leeway is built in to reflect the fact some people may choose to wait longer or that it may be clinically beneficial to delay treatment
  • The latest figures - from April - showed that nationally 90.5% of inpatients were seen in 18 weeks
  • But when the data was broken down locally a third of areas were in breach of the standards - double the number from April 2010

While most felt this would not harm patient safety or the quality of care over the next year, 53% said patient access could get worse.

The NHS Confederation said this was because of increased rationing of services - there have been reports of restrictions being placed on everything from fertility treatment to hip and knee operations - and longer waiting times for treatment.

Speaking ahead of the NHS Confederation's annual conference which is starting in Manchester on Wednesday, Mr Farrar admitted there was a danger this could compromise the 18-week hospital waiting time limit.

Mike Farrar, the head of the NHS Confederation warns waiting times 'might slip'

"I think there is a risk. That is clearly what people are saying."

His warning comes just a month after David Cameron made a personal pledge to keep waiting times below 18 weeks as part of his drive to allay fears over the NHS reform programme.

Mr Farrar also called on politicians to stop attacking managers and called for them to show more "political courage" by supporting proposals to close hospital units where it was shown to be clinically necessary.

He said he had had experience of cases where MPs said they agreed with plans in private, but then opposed them in public.

"Managers need more support if we are going to deal with the difficulties ahead," he added.

Shadow health secretary John Healey said: "This is further evidence of widespread anxiety in the health service, as financial pressures impact on patient care and we start to see the NHS going backwards again under the Tories."

But Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said waiting times would continue to remain low and stable as promised.

He added: "Ultimately, our modernisation plans will safeguard the future of the NHS, improve care for patients, drive up quality and support doctors and nurses in providing the best possible care for their patients."

Meanwhile, a senior government official has attacked the government's overhaul of the NHS - despite the concessions made last month to water-down some of the proposals.

Sir Roger Boyle, the Department of Health's heart tsar, said the "mega reorganisation" could lead to people in the NHS taking their "eye off the ball" and therefore risk destabilising the service during the tough financial times.

Sir Roger said he was retiring soon partly because of his objection to the changes.

"I feel in my bones that the current plans are not correct."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    The 18 week is an absolute propaganda statement like everything else from this gov.My wife had a lump in her neck, and it was diagnosed as saliver gland blockage. The doctor recommended her to go to the Dentist ? What for ?Delaying tactics that's all.Over the period of 5 years it grew by approx 10% each year, and she was told by a reknowned surgeon that it will continue to grow.I paid for surgery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    When something is free then the demand for it will never be met. If cars were free then it would be impossible to make enough to satisfy demand, just like the NHS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Problems can be traced back to Thatcher. In the 1980s I used to work in a rural area and we had 3 community hospitals managed by 1 nursing officer; each individual unit was run by a charge nurse. Following Thatcher/Griffiths we had each hospital run by a 'manager' assisted by a 'deputy manager' all overseen by a 'general manager'. Things are still as bad - layer upon layer of management...

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The 18 week rule is a farce. My wife waited 16 weeks to see a specialist, was informed an operation was needed but, the following week was told by telephone that unless she agreed to an operation within 2-weeks, then she would be removed from the list of operations. We were away from home at the time of this call and could not confirm a date. No letters, no apologies. Now back to square 1.


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