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23.01.14

Treat patient waiting time data with caution – NAO

There are issues with the accuracy of patient waiting time data, the National Audit Office (NAO) has cautioned.

A new report found that the value for money of waiting times for elective care in England is being undermined by problems with “the completeness, consistency and accuracy” of patient waiting time data.

There are also inconsistencies in the way patient referrals to hospital are managed.

The NAO found that in 2012/13, 58 trusts breached the 18-week referral to treatment standard in at least one month. But the report states that published figures on waiting times need to be treated “with a degree of caution”.

Individual performance is not directly comparable, as local variation exists in how waiting time is measured. Errors in 167 cases could also lead to over- and under-reporting of waiting times.

The NAO said that NHS England does not have sufficient assurance about how trusts are performing, and should seek additional checks.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The challenge of sustaining the 18-week waiting standards is increasing, against a background of an increasing number of patients being referred to trusts, the financial pressure on the NHS and the need to make efficiency savings.

“If this challenge is to be met, then performance information should be reliable. However, we have found significant errors and inconsistencies in how trusts record waiting time, masking a good deal of variation between trusts in actual waiting times. The solution is not costly new processes, rather making sure existing processes work properly and are properly scrutinized.” 

NHS England's director of policy and strategy, Bill McCarthy, said: “We firmly believe it is essential to have accurate information provided in a timely way to ensure better care for patients.”

Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN said: “It’s deeply worrying that incorrect information and inconsistent methods of recording waiting times are seemingly widespread across the NHS. This invariably will put more pressure on services and staff - accurate waiting time data should be used to make the case for investment and innovation in the health service, but what we’ve seen is that many staff have been put under tremendous pressure to meet targets but not given enough resources to achieve these."

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