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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Thousands of operations cancelled
Operations are often cancelled because of staff shortages
Thousands of patients are still having their operations cancelled at the last minute despite government efforts to tackle the problem.

Department of Health figures show that between April and June, over 14,000 people in England had surgery cancelled just days before their appointment.

They also show trusts are still failing to admit many of these patients within 28 days, as promised.

Ministers have already spent millions of pounds trying to tackle the problem.

Trouble-shooters have been sent into hospitals with the worst records over the past year as part of an 8.5m scheme.

Lack of staff

In June, a report by the Audit Commission found that many operations are cancelled because of a lack of staff or because theatres are already busy.

It suggested that many of these cancellations could be avoided if hospitals were managed better.

The government is determined to improve performance on cancellations
Department of Health spokesman
Overall, 14,092 patients had their operation cancelled for non-clinical reasons in the first three months of the financial year. Of these, 1,534 were not admitted within 28 days.

The figures suggest that some progress is being made. In the previous three months, 19,973 had operations cancelled. However, slightly fewer patients had to wait more than 28 days to be admitted.

"The government is determined to improve performance on cancellations," a Department of Health spokesman said.

Ministers have allocated another 7.4m towards tackling the problem this year.

But shadow health secretary Liam Fox criticised the figures.

"More patients had their operations cancelled in the first quarter of this year than in the first full year Labour were in office," he said.

"Patients preparing for operations experience huge emotional pressure.

"Having them cancelled at the last minute because of the government's mismanagement of the NHS is deeply disturbing."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Evan Harris said: "These figures represent the tip of the iceberg because they only include patients cancelled on the day of admission or the day of operation.

"Thousands more are cancelled the night before the day of admission to avoid having to be reported and still others are kept in hospital despite the operation being cancelled to avoid their having to be reported."

A&E waits

The Department of Health figures also suggest that 90% of A&E patients are now dealt with in four hours.

A total of 51 trusts claim to be treating all of their patients within this time.

There are certain exceptional cases where it is better for the patient to remain in A&E for longer than the four hour target
Health Secretary John Reid
However, critics have expressed doubts about A&E figures in the past.

In March, a Department of Health audit found 85% of A&E departments were meeting the target.

But trusts were given advance notice of the survey and a similar study by the British Medical Association the following week found just 63% were meeting the target.

The Hospital Activity Statistics come as Health Secretary John Reid confirmed he is considering easing the government's A&E targets.

The Department of Health has published a consultation document which proposed excluding some patients from the target.

The type of patients who may be excluded from the four-hour target include patients who are being resuscitated or whose condition could deteriorate if they are transferred elsewhere.

Risk to patients

In June, doctors at the BMA's annual conference warned that pressure to meet the target was putting patients at risk.

Mr Reid acknowledged that the government's policy may be misguided.

"Doctors have told us that there are certain exceptional cases where it is better for the patient to remain in A&E for longer than the four hour target," he said.

"If the target gets in the way of clinical requirements then it must be refined."

The BMA welcomed the move. Dr Don MacKechnie, chairman of its A&E committee, said: "It was always unrealistic, and in some cases, unsafe, to expect doctors and nurses to get every patient through A&E departments in under four hours.

"While there is a good case for waiting time targets, they need to be based on clinically sound criteria and applied in ways that are in the best interests of patients."

A&E target survey rubbished
02 Jun 03  |  Health

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