NHS leaders have warned of increasing pressure on access to services, as the latest Department of Health figures show the number of patients waiting over 13 weeks for diagnostic tests has increased nine-fold.
The NHS Confederation, which represents managers across the NHS, warned the gains that had been made to reduce waiting times were already being lost as finances were squeezed, and that NHS managers were concerned about a ‘deterioration in standards'.
The number of people waiting more than 13 weeks for one of the tests. In June, there were 1,763 people waiting more than 13 weeks, up from just 190 in June 2010.
The DH figures show that in June, there were 12,521 people waiting more than six weeks for one of 15 key tests, including MRI, CT and heart scans, ultrasound, barium enemas and colonoscopies. This is up on the 3,510 waiting more than six weeks in June 2010.
It comes after a Pulse investigation found PCTs had been forced to pay private providers around £100m to clear waiting lists and provide treatments for patients who had waited longer than 18 weeks for NHS treatment.
Last week bosses of NHS foundation trusts warned their hospitals would struggle to meet commitments on delivering diagnostic tests and treatments within set time limits.
Health secretary Andrew Lansley has relaxed some NHS targets on waiting times but he and Prime Minister David Cameron have pledged to keep them low and to retain them as a patient right enshrined within the NHS constitution.
The DH figures also show 595,500 people in total across England waiting for diagnostic tests in June – the highest number this year. Overall, the number of tests carried out between April 2010 and March 2011 has risen 2.8% on the previous year, from 37.7m to 38.8m.
Jo Webber, deputy director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: ‘The NHS has made huge progress on waiting times in recent years and nobody wants to see those hard-won gains lost.
‘This data is further evidence that access to care will be stretched as the financial situation gets increasingly pressured.'
‘Most NHS leaders are concerned about the potential for further declines in access over the next 12 months. Even if the Government's NHS reforms are to help, they will not do so for some years to come.'
‘This is a growing problem that is before us now, not in the future. NHS leaders will have to make some difficult decisions about how care is planned and delivered if we are to avoid a deterioration in the standard of services.'