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Analysis finds wait times for treatment on the rise

By Alisdair Stirling

Patients are waiting longer for treatment and diagnostic tests than seasonal effects would predict since the abolition of hospital targets, new research confirms.

A King's Fund study of waiting times since June last year – when the Government scrapped the 18-week referral to treatment target and relaxed the four hour accident and emergency target – shows waits for both have increased. The findings back an analysis in Pulse which revealed that waiting times have jumped by a quarter since the targets were dropped.

In a letter to the BMJ, Professor John Appleby, chief economist in health policy at the King's Fund, said his research suggested a mixed picture.

Although figures for December 2010 showed that waits were down on the previous month, the proportion of patients still waiting over 18 weeks for hospital treatment has increased by more than the seasonal effect would predict.

Pulse has also revealed NHS performance against the 18-week referral-to-treatment target will no longer be monitored by managers – even though treatment within the time limit remains a right for all patients.

The 18 week treatment target is also enshrined in NHS contracts between commissioners and providers, leading to fears that GP consortia will have to enforce the targets locally and even impose fines on defaulting providers.

GPC negotiator Dr Chaand Nagpaul said there was a ‘complete incongruence' in scrapping the target while it remained an NHS constitutional right and called on the Government to act to clarify the situation.

‘It raises questions about the NHS constitution and its validity. If the constitution is now being breached, the Government needs to respond and intervene to ensure patients are treated within the timescale.'