Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 15:50 GMT
Patients waiting longer for hospital appointments
Waiting times for hospital appointments are on the increase
Waiting times for first hospital outpatient appointments have risen, according to official figures.
Department of Health statistics show that the number of people waiting more than 13 weeks for a first outpatient appointment in England following a written GP referral rose by 31,000 to 468,000 in the final quarter of 1998.
The number of patients waiting more than 26 weeks for an appointment rose by 18,000 to 144,000.
The latest figures follow a rise of 11,500 in the total number of people waiting for hospital treatment in December.
People waiting for an Initial Hospital Appointment (IHA) are not included in the official waiting lists for treatment.
Only 37% of people waited less than a month for an outpatient appointment and 5% waited more than 26 weeks.
The number of patients seen following a written GP referral rose slightly from 1.88 million in the third quarter of 1998 to 1.89 in the last three months of the year.
Ministers blamed the rise on the large numbers of patients who failed to attend their appointments.
Health Minister Baroness Hayman announced the appointment of a "list buster" to cut the number of missed appointments, which amounted to 1.3 million last year.
But opposition parties accused the government of "fiddling the figures" and said the latest statistics meant that "real" hospital waiting lists had doubled since the general election.
Health Secretary Frank Dobson has pledged to cut waiting lists to pre-election levels by next month.
"The waiting list for the waiting list is growing and growing whilst Frank Dobson complacently claims that the health service is safe in his hands.
"One of Frank's fiddles has been to force more people to wait longer and longer before they can even get on to his official waiting list figures.
"This shifts the bulge away from the headline waiting list and onto the outpatient waiting list, which has almost doubled since the general election."
He added: "Making people wait longer to see a specialist isn't just a fiddle - it's extremely dangerous to the safety of the patient."
Last week, the government announced a £20m cash injection designed to cut waiting lists and times.
Baroness Hayman said: "The NHS as a whole is losing out because a large number of appointments are missed.
"I want (the list buster team) to look long and hard at how we can ensure more people attend their appointments.
"Outpatient work is a key part of NHS care for us. While half of all outpatient appointments do not lead to an admission to hospital, that does not lessen their importance."
She added: "We are determined to reverse the rise we have seen in the number of patients waiting long periods for an outpatient appointment."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris said: "By distorting priorities, robbing outpatient Peter to pay inpatient Paul, the government has blundered. The real wait is getting longer.
"The government's waiting list initiative is putting patients at risk by deliberately postponing diagnosis in order to window dress figures for non urgent inpatient operations."
Tim Jones, policy manager for the NHS Confederation, said the rise in waiting times for outpatient appointments was inevitable as the government had made cutting inpatient and day case surgery a top priority.
He said consultants had no spare time to run extra outpatient clinics.
"Outpatient appointments are very important," he said.
"People are in some degree of anxiety when they are referred to a consultant and the sooner they see a doctor and get an opinion, the better it is for their whole general well-being as well as for the treatment of their particular medical condition."