Long hospital waits 'on the increase'

Hospital equipment
Image caption There has been an overall drop in the number of people waiting for hospital treatment

The number of people facing "long waits" for hospital treatment in England is rising, NHS figures show.

Under the NHS Constitution, patients have a right to be seen in 18 weeks.

But there are currently 236,155 on the waiting list who have waited longer than that - a rise of 8.5% in a year, according to official data. Nearly half have waited more than six months.

The government said there could be valid medical or personal reasons for long waits.

However, doctors blamed the rise on the squeeze in budgets that is increasingly being seen in the health service.

The most common treatments people are facing long waits for is in orthopaedics, which includes operations such as knee and hip replacements.

Peter Kay, president of the British Orthopaedic Association and a former adviser to the Department of Health, said the sheer numbers waiting longer than 18 weeks meant it was unlikely to be solely for personal or medical reasons.

He said the focus of hospitals was now slipping and patients were being left waiting for too long.

And he added: "One of the issues with 18 weeks is that once you have missed the boat there is less incentive to get the patient treated. They get left on the list for longer than they otherwise would."

The rise in those waiting longer than 18 weeks has happened despite a small drop in the overall number of people on the waiting list.

The April data - the latest available - showed that 2.47 million were on waiting lists, down from 2.51 million in April 2010.

Waits of a year are even being seen. Nearly 13,500 patients have waited this long.

A spokesman for the Patients Association said the figures "back up what patients are telling us".

But a Department of Health spokesman said average waiting times were "stable" and the government was committed to keeping them low.

But he added: "There will always be some longer waits reported - including as a result of clinical decisions, patients missing appointments and patients exercising choice."

The spokesman also pointed out that overall hospitals were meeting the waiting time performance expected of them.

While all patients are entitled to treatment within 18 weeks under the NHS Constitution, hospitals are only expected to see 90% of inpatients and 95% of outpatients in that timeframe to reflect the fact that some patients are not seen for valid reasons.

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