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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February 2005, 18:20 GMT
NHS Waiting times for England
Panorama: What has labour done for the NHS?
an operation being performed at Bedford Hospital
BBC One, Sunday, 20 February 2005, 22:15 GMT

The Panorama programme examines the government's progress on one of the most important targets set for the NHS - waiting times. Six years ago waiting times were a real political problem.

Research commissioned for Panorama shows that for all the national pressure to speed the system up, while total numbers on the waiting list have come down considerably, the average time that patients wait for treatment, hasn't changed much.

In 1997-98 the average waiting time was 99 days. That fell to 90 days in 1999-2000, but has climbed again to 95 days in 2004.

Mike Harley, Health service performance analyst and Director of Inter-Authority Comparisons and Consultancy based at Birmingham University, says

Chart showing decline in overall number of patients on the waiting list

"The waiting experience for some patients who may have waited a very long time, that has certainly improved and we've got rid of the long waiters, we've got rid of people waiting over 15 months, then 12, then 9 months."

"For most people, waiting times are just the same as they always were, and the average waiting time has not changed for the last 7 years"

The charts show the numbers waiting in English trusts by time band (3 months or more, 6 months, etc) for all-specialities combined.

Graph showing that longer waiting times have decreased considerably

The chart accessible on the right shows that in September 2004 the total numbers waiting (for all specialities) are far fewer overall: 856,647 from 1,287,543 a decrease of 33%.

In the graph below it is possible to see that the numbers waiting under 6 months (the bottom two bands) are not that different in the two periods. It is the longer waits (targeted) that have gone.

Cutting the waiting list

The Government's policy of contracting out patients to the private sector, starting out with operations in treatment centres, has been controversial. But the judgement of the independent experts is that the policy has been key to seriously driving down the numbers on the waiting list, in particular those waiting over 6 months.

Mike Harley, Health service performance expert and Director of Inter-Authority Comparisons and Consultancy based at Birmingham University, says

This graph shows the fall in number on the waiting list

"It's only in the last 2 years where we're really attacking the waiting list and the big effect there I think has been the introduction of treatment centres and contracts with the private sector to deal with long wait patients"

John Appleby, Chief Economist at the King's Fund, says

"Waiting was an issue that the public and patients cared about and the government was reflecting that concern I suppose. So you set targets - tough targets - for reducing waiting times, and you put more money in, and you have tough sanctions. I think that's the key thing to target. It's not just setting the target but it's actually having incentives which are... amongst managers waiting time targets were known as the P45 target. If you didn't hit your target you'd possibly lose your job"

All the data analysed for this programme refer to England.

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16 Feb 05 |  Panorama
NHS spending analysed
20 Feb 05 |  Panorama
More GPs in England
20 Feb 05 |  Panorama
Health outcomes in the NHS
21 Feb 05 |  Panorama
Increase in attendances at A&E
20 Feb 05 |  Panorama
Your comments
20 Feb 05 |  Panorama
The waiting game
11 Feb 05 |  Health
NHS chief upbeat about progress
03 Dec 04 |  Health


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