By Alisdair Stirling
The number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks from referral to treatment is greater than at any time since mid-2008, the latest NHS statistics for England reveal.
More than 35,000 patients waited more than 18 weeks for treatment in March, breaking the NHS constitution-enshrined right for 18 week waits for the second month running.
The figures show that 10.4% of patients waited for more than 18 weeks from referral to treatment in March, up from 10.2% in February.
The numbers of patients waiting for more than 18 weeks has increased steadily since ministers removed the formal target of admitting 90% of patients within 18-weeks last summer. The target had been strictly enforced until last June but still remains a patient right under the NHS Constitution.
Figures for non-admitted patients showed the numbers being treated within 18 weeks had stayed stable on around 97% since the beginning of the year. Some 25,578 non-admitted patients waited for longer than 18 weeks in March.
Rob Findlay, founder of the website nhsgooroo.co.uk and a specialist in waiting time dynamics said the increases in waits reflected a spring purge by trusts on long wait backlogs. He told Pulse: 'Trusts sharply increased the number of patients they treated from the waiting list, and set about tackling their long-wait backlogs.'
'As a result, the number and proportion of over-18-week waiters on the waiting list fell to pre-winter levels, which is good news for patients and the service. The number of very long waiters over 52 weeks also reduced slightly to 14,355.'
'But bringing in all those long-waiters comes at a price: it looks bad on the main waiting time targets, which track the patients treated, not the patients still waiting. Admissions within 18 weeks have deteriorated to 89.6%, the "worst" since mid-2008.'
A Department of Health spokesperson said: 'Waiting times go up and they go down, but this data shows that waiting times remain broadly stable.'
'On average, admitted patients waited 7.9 weeks for treatment in March 2011, compared to 8 weeks in March 2010. For outpatients it is just 3.7 weeks, compared to 3.8 weeks in 2010.'Hospital waiting times are on the rise