Vulnerable patients face 'painful waits in the NHS'
Vulnerable patients are being left for months in pain and with disability because of long waits for orthopaedic care, campaigners have said.
Arthritis Research UK has warned the worsening situation across England is particularly affecting the elderly.
Patients needing orthopaedic care, such as knee and hip replacements, face the longest hospital waits in the NHS.
One in six now waits for longer than the 18-week target - the highest of any speciality, official data shows.
A significant minority - about 5% - even wait beyond six months.
Dr Benjamin Ellis, of Arthritis Research UK, said: "More and more NHS hospitals are trying to save money by making people wait for their joint replacement operations.
"This decline in quality of NHS services is condemning large numbers of people to months of unnecessary pain and disability.
"Depriving people of timely treatment, many of them older people, is unfair and risks going back to the days when people waited months and years to receive their new joint."
Orthopaedic treatment is the most common type of non-emergency care carried out by hospitals.
Some 55,000 of the 300,000 patients undergoing elective treatment each month are seen by orthopaedic specialists.
But of those, more than 16% were not seen within 18 weeks in May, the latest month for which figures are available, up from just over 13% last year.
This is despite the fact that under the NHS Constitution, patients have a right to be seen within that time frame.
The situation is twice as bad as that faced by people who need help for eye problems where 8% wait longer than 18 weeks.
For dermatology, less than 3% of patients wait longer than 18 weeks.
It comes after a report published last week by the regulator Monitor predicted a number of foundation trusts - the group of top-performing hospitals in the NHS - would face difficulties keeping waiting times down in the coming year.
Peter Kay, president of the British Orthopaedic Association and a former adviser to the Department of Health, said problems were most acute in orthopaedics because of the ageing population and the fact that the NHS has never properly got on top of the issue.
"We are a victim of our own success really. Hip and knee replacements have such good outcomes and as people are living longer, their joints wear out and they need these operations.
"But even when we were getting waiting lists down we never really tackle the issue. We have relied on temporary theatres, Saturday surgeries and the private sector. The NHS has not expanded enough to create sustainable capacity and with money tight we are seeing things squeezed.
"I am seeing more and more patients coming to me who are on powerful pain-killers like morphine. That should not be happening on such a scale, but they are getting stuck in the system, not getting referred straight away, and waiting longer than they should."
The Department of Health pointed out that some of the longest waits could be because people were choosing to wait beyond 18 weeks for valid personal or medical reasons.
A spokesman said waiting times for orthopaedic care were still "low and stable", while the average wait was 12 weeks.
"This is against a backdrop of rising demand for NHS services, so the low waiting times are a testimony to the hard work of NHS staff."