Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Data Briefing

What’s the point of waiting time targets if they can’t be met?

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 27 February 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l845
  1. John Appleby, director of research and chief economist
  1. Nuffield Trust, London, UK
  1. john.appleby{at}

NHS targets have not consistently been achieved for years, reports John Appleby, so next month’s review is welcome

In the NHS’s first 50 years, waiting lists and long waits were generally seen not as a bug to be fixed but as a feature of the service. It took till the beginning of this century to realise that waiting, or at least excessive waiting, could be tackled, even in a universal healthcare system that is free at the point of use. But now, nearly two decades later, the commitment—and perhaps the tactics—to reduce and maintain low waiting times look shaky.

No country in the UK, for example, has met the target that no more than 5% of patients attending accident and emergency departments should wait longer than four hours to be admitted, transferred, or discharged since Scotland did nearly a year and a half ago (fig 1). For England it was three and a half years ago (with just five of …

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