Medical practice

NHS waiting times cut

The NHS has achieved the shortest waiting times since its records began, the Department of Health said today.

It also said it had met its “18 weeks” waiting time target, whereby patients referred from a GP for further treatment start that treatment within 18 weeks. The target became the operational standard for the NHS from January 1 2009. Today’s announcement confirms that the deadline was met.

The average wait for treatment for patients admitted to hospital is now just 8.6 weeks. Outpatients waited an average of 4.6 weeks at January 2009, compared to 7.4 weeks at August 2007.

[Editor’s note: more recent waiting time information has been released since this article was published. Visit the Department of Health website for the latest figures]

Are these claims correct?

Yes, from the data available, both claims appear correct.

Waiting list data has been collected since the NHS was founded in 1948 and the average time taken to clear hospital waiting lists is now lower than it has ever been.

Data for the more explicit “18 weeks” target has been collected since 2007. The target requires the NHS to start treatment of patients within 18 weeks of referral from a GP. Tolerances of 5% for outpatients and 10% for inpatients are allowed. All 10 Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) now meet these minimum standards.

Why might it take longer than 18 weeks to be treated?

The wait may exceed 18 weeks for patients who:

  • Are not medically fit to be treated, for example those who are too overweight for surgery to be performed safely,
  • Require an extended period of testing and observation before a diagnosis can be made, or 
  • Choose to wait longer for treatment because it suits them, perhaps because of work commitments or a holiday.

Repeatedly failing to attend agreed hospital appointments might also delay a patient's treatment beyond the 18-week limit.

18 weeks still sounds like a long time

An 18-week wait is the longest allowed. Most NHS patients do not wait anything like that long. The average wait for treatment for patients admitted to hospital is now 8.6 weeks. Patients who did not need to be admitted waited an average of 4.6 weeks as of January 2009.

How exactly is the 18 week period measured?

The clock starts when the hospital receives the patient’s referral letter from their GP or when the patient books their own hospital appointment via the electronic Choose and Book system.

In no more than 18 weeks, the patient must have received all the preliminary tests required and definitive treatment must have started.

What does “definitive treatment” mean?

Definitive treatment means the start of the first treatment that is intended to cure a person’s disease or injury. Definitive treatment includes:

  • Being admitted to hospital for an operation or treatment,
  • Starting treatment that doesn’t require you to stay in hospital (for example, medication or physiotherapy),
  • Beginning your fitting of a medical device such as a leg brace, or
  • Starting an agreed period of time to monitor your condition to see if you need further treatment.

Are there any areas where the target has not been met?

Yes, the 18-week target has not been reached in two specialist treatment areas – trauma and orthopaedics, and neurosurgery. Even so, median waiting times in both areas remain within the target (12 weeks and 10 weeks respectively) and most patients do start treatment within 18 weeks. Action is being taken to bring these areas fully within the 18-week limit nationally.

Any other exceptions?

A small number of NHS organisations are not hitting the 18-week target. Sixteen NHS trusts, including six Primary Care Trusts, did not achieve the minimum standard in January 2009. However, the Department of Health says all organisations have made “significant progress” and firm action is being taken to ensure they meet the standard in future.

How can I find out about waiting times at particular hospitals?

On NHS Choices it is possible to compare hospitals on many criteria including waiting times for particular treatments. Look up the treatment in Health A-Z, and then click “Compare hospitals”. Putting in your postcode will give you a list of hospitals in your area, which can be compared on a range of data.

What can I do to ensure I am treated quickly?

  • Exercise your right to choose which hospital your GP refers you to using the process described above to compare hospitals.
  • Be prepared to consider hospitals other than your local one if a shorter wait is available elsewhere.
  • Keep any appointments you have, or let the hospital or clinic know as early as possible if you can’t attend or need to rearrange your appointment.
  • Think about how you might improve your lifestyle, for example stopping smoking or losing weight, so that you will be fit for treatment.

NHS Attribution