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Thursday, August 20, 1998 Published at 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK


Big variations in NHS waiting times

Waiting lists vary for all surgical specialities

Waiting times for NHS operations vary widely across the country, according to the organisation which runs the National Waiting List Helpline.

The College of Health helps callers reduce waiting times for their operations by collecting data from around half of the UK's 360 NHS trusts.

The college's data shows wide discrepancies in treatment times for the main surgical specialities. In some cases patients in one part of the country are waiting twice as long for an operation as residents elsewhere.

Big variation

Among the findings released by the college are:

  • The longest wait for general surgerical procedures such as hernia, and varicose vein operations is 58 weeks in the North East Thames region, and the shortest 32 weeks in Wessex.

  • Patients waiting for trauma or orthopaedic procedures such as hip replacements face the longest wait in Trent, of 77 weeks, and the shortest in Oxford, at 45 weeks.

  • The longest wait for ophthalmological operations is in Trent, 71 weeks, and the shortest is in Scotland, 36 weeks.

About one in five callers this year changed hospitals to have their operation, and some got an earlier date by directly contacting the relevant hospital or health authority, the college said.

College spokeswoman Jessica Bush said: "It is possible for fund-holding GPs to seek operations for their patients outside their region.

"We help people get treated more quickly, either through the NHS or privately."

College of Health director Marianne Rigge said there were many reasons for the discrepancy in waiting times. Some units had run out of cash and told their surgeons not to operate on patients until they had been waiting 18 months, and others had difficulty recruiting sufficient specialist nurses.

"Variation in waiting times is not a new thing, but it is extraordinarily frustrating for patients," she said.

Official figures 'lower'

The Department of Health said its official waiting list figures were "significantly lower" than those of the College of Health.

A spokesman for the department said: "We have our own helpline which gives people local information about waiting lists in their area.

"We also want to make it clear that it is sometimes not possible for a GP to send a patient 200 miles away for an operation. That GP has to enter into a contract with whatever hospital he wants the patient to be treated at."

The Department of Health withdrew funding from the National Waiting List Helpline in 1994, after three years. Nuffield hospital has just donated £12,500 to help keep it running.

Less flexibility

From next April fundholding will be scrapped, to be replaced by a system of primary care groups, and the government plans to reduce the opportunity for doctors to refer patients outside the local area.

Ms Rigge called on ministers to keep a degree of flexibility in the system.

"Doctors should be able to make sure spare capacity, where it exists, is used to treat patients who have been waiting a long time, often in pain," she said.

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