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Decision to relax waiting time targets ‘will only exacerbate’ patient outlook

NHS England’s recent decision to relax rules on waiting time targets will only exacerbate an “already unacceptable” situation for patients, the chief executive of the Patients Association has said as new research showed the number of people waiting over 18 weeks for elective surgery is up by almost 80%.

Katherine Murphy said that, from a patient’s perspective, “nothing positive” can come from taking away targets – it just means “people could be waiting even longer as there will be little incentive for NHS providers to focus on efficiency”.

The CEO’s remarks come as the Patients Association shared insight from its analysis into waiting time targets, which collected responses from 112 Freedom of Information requests sent to English trusts.

Figures showed over 92,000 patients waited for over 18 weeks in 2015 for elective surgery, such as hip or knee operations, compared to just over 51,000 the year before – representing a year-on-year increase of 79.5%.

Almost 80% of trusts also said they were not notifying patients of their rights and options under the NHS Constitution when the 18-week limit had been missed.

“There are many deeply concerning figures highlighted in this report, but it is particularly alarming that trusts are not notifying patients of their rights under the NHS Constitution when the 18 week waiting time limit is breached,” Murphy commented.

“This lack of awareness and due regard to the NHS Constitution is worrying, as it means that patients are going without the medical care they deserve whilst also being denied the important information about the healthcare choices they are entitled to.”

She added that the association has noticed a “clear trend” over recent years in the growing time people are waiting for operations.

“Every day we hear from the people behind these statistics on our national helpline: individuals who are in pain, worried they will lose further mobility, or will take longer to recover when they finally get their surgery,” said Murphy.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Liz McAnulty, a trustee of the association, argued that as well as more money, the country needed NHS England and NHS Improvement to “sit down with patient groups and organisations such as the King’s Fund and analyse what the problems are, and come up with a list of solutions and put it to the public, which may mean some radical changes”.

‘Misleading and statistically flawed’ findings

However, health minister David Mowat contested the Patients Association report, calling its claims “both unreliable and misleading”.

“The latest official figures show that nine in 10 patients still wait less than 18 weeks for treatment, despite the fact that last year the NHS carried out 1.6 million more operations than in 2010,” he said.

“Fewer than 1% of operations were cancelled on short notice – stable despite this rising activity – and the number of people waiting more than a year has dropped by nearly 18,000 under this government.”

An NHS England spokesman added the body has “significant concerns” about the report, once again calling it misleading and “statistically flawed” as it is based on a “fundamental misunderstanding of the referral-to-treatment performance standard”.

“Waits for an NHS operation remain close to an all-time low – down from a maximum wait of 18 months over a decade ago to 18 weeks now, with the average wait less than 10 weeks,” said the spokesman.

“Last month, more than nine out of 10 patients were waiting less than 18 weeks to start consultant-led treatment. We continue to make strides in cutting long waits, with the number of patients waiting over a year slashed from over 5,000 recorded in March 2012 to being in the hundreds now.”

Last week, the NHS Confederation’s interim CEO Stephen Dalton also argued that the “important” relaxation of some targets and the penalties of missing them “will give many hospitals much-needed opportunity”.


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