More patients wait but for shorter time

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 20 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:497
  1. S Kingman

    The number of patients who have been waiting more than a year for treatment in England has gone up slightly since March but is down compared with this time last year, according to government figures published last week. Provisional figures on waiting times show that 0.1% more patients had been waiting for treatment for between one and two years at the end of June than at the end of March. The total number of patients waiting for treatment at the end of the second quarter of this year was 1 070 887. This figure is up by 0.5% on the first quarter, compared with a 2.3% rise last year.

    Announcing the figures, Tom Sackville, parliamentary secretary for health, said that the number of patients who had been waiting over one year for treatment had dropped by more than 1000 to 64 625 compared with the figure for the same time last year. He claimed that the figures represented the best first quarter performance of the NHS for four years.

    The minister pointed out that the number of people who had been waiting more than one year had been slashed from 170 000 since the NHS reforms were introduced. “Half of all admissions into hospital are immediate,” he said. “Of those admitted from waiting lists, half are admitted within five weeks, nearly 75% within three months, and 98% within one year. What matters to patients is not how many people are on the waiting list but ‘How long do I have to wait?’” He reported that since 1988 the average waiting time for patients had fallen from over nine months to less than five.

    The figures showed that only 447 patients had been waiting for treatment for two years or longer by the end of June. Of these, 444 were waiting for in vitro fertilisation at Hammersmith Hospital.

    The minister announced that two new targets would be introduced into the patient's charter from next April. These would require all patients needing heart bypass surgery and some associated procedures to be treated within 12 months and all patients to be given an outpatient appointment within a specified time.

    But Labour's health spokesman, David Blunkett, said that the figures showed the total failure of the government's changes in the NHS: “Waiting lists have risen dramatically again, to another all time record total of 1.07 million, as over 5000 more people join the official queues.” If those waiting for a first consultant appointment were included, he said, the true waiting list was 2.3 million.

    Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the British Medical Association's council, said that he was pleased that the secretary of state, Virginia Bottomley, had taken on board the association's suggestion that care must be related to clinical need. “The association has always said that it is not so important how many people are on the waiting list but how long they have been waiting and how that relates to the care they actually need.” The reforms must be judged on these criteria, he said. “These figures do not show one way or another whether the reforms have been a success.”

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