The head of the NHS has said there are clear signs that the health service is getting better.
The government is spending record amounts on the NHS
In his annual report, Sir Nigel Crisp, NHS chief executive, said patients were now being seen and treated much faster than before.
Sir Nigel said the health service was working "more effectively and more efficiently", although he acknowledged more needs to be done.
"We are beginning to see a really big change in the NHS," he told the BBC.
The report suggests that there have been major improvements in the NHS over the past year.
It says 98% of patients are now able to see their GP or practice nurses within 24 hours.
It claims 94% of patients are now seen and treated in A&E within four hours.
The report also confirms that the government met its target to reduce hospital waiting times to nine months by the end of March.
The average waiting time is now 10 weeks and the total number waiting has fallen from 992,000 last year to 906,000 now.
The report says there were 167,000 more elective operations in hospital in 2003 compared to the previous year and an extra 197,000 were carried out in primary care and outpatients.
"Waiting times have fallen faster and further this year than ever before," Sir Nigel said.
"Death rates from the major killers, cancer and coronary heart disease, are falling quickly.
"More staff have been recruited and more buildings and equipment brought into use."
Value for money
Sir Nigel dismissed claims that the NHS is not providing value for money.
The government is spending record amounts on the NHS. Spending has increased from £65bn in 2002 to £79bn this year. Spending is set to top £100bn by 2007.
However, a recent report in The Sunday Times in April suggested that productivity has actually decreased.
"We have measurable improvements in outcomes such as mortality rates and speed in which we treat patients," Sir Nigel said.
"Extra NHS activity is taking place in the community, in primary care settings, in walk-in centres and through NHS Direct."
Health Secretary John Reid welcomed the report.
"I am delighted by this latest confirmation that the NHS is improving, but I'm not complacent," he said.
"Progress is being made fast and visibly and I thank every member of the NHS for their contribution, but we still have a long way to go."
Shadow Health Secretary Tim Yeo said the report didn't portray an accurate picture of the NHS.
"The report does contain a fair amount of spin and not a huge amount of substance," he said. "It is not a complete picture."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow said: "The government is in danger of looking smug and complacent when there is still much to do."
I am due for 6 month check-up to ensure all is well after a cataract operation and I also suffer glaucoma however the appointment has been delayed by the hospital twice, admitting that it is to enable them to meet government targets for new patients. Whilst my level of risk is now less than someone who has not been seen I object to comments that the NHS is working better. Differently perhaps but in my case not better!
I have received tremendous treatment on the NHS recently - 1.5 hrs in casualty, physiotherapy starting 3 days later, and continuing with 2 sessions weekly. Well done Chelsea and Westminster. Having said that, I originally went to St Mary's Paddington and got given the wrong diagnosis which meant I ended up at Chelsea and West. Still, the NHS is definitely getting better, although it would get better quicker with more internal reform. Well done staff.
Trevor Henry, London
I am a doctor in the NHS and a firm believer in it. I am delighted the efforts of all involved have concrete figures to prove things are improving. Now it is time for the general public to add their contribution by taking responsibility for their own health e.g. smoking and obesity
Chris Kirwan, london
Everyone is going private - therefore reducing the waiting list.
S Alexander, Letchworth, Herts
Two months ago I received a letter asking me to phone for a hospital appointment. When I did I was told they would call me back with a date and time. I am still waiting.
Richard Tinley, Leicester, England
British people do not realise how lucky they are to have the NHS. In Ireland where I come from, you have to pay full whack for a service where you have to wait forever for even the smallest of procedures. A while ago in Britain, I had to go for some x-rays and I was stunned to go to the doctors in the morning, be given a slip for x-rays in a hospital, have the x-rays that same afternoon and get the results back from my GP the next week. Compare that to Ireland where it can take a shocking 3 months to get a result back from a smear test. The only reservation I have about the NHS is having to register with a particular doctor. That is not very user friendly.
I am sure that the NHS is making good progress as far as the statistics detail. However, I think it is about time the executive stops concentrating on numbers and starts looking at the human beings at the coal face, who are the one's providing the service to patients.
It is good to hear that 98% of patients are able to see their GP within 24 hours. Perhaps he should have a look at our local practice where that statistic is certainly not the norm for a non emergency appointment. It is good to see that statistics are still being manipulated to give the correct answers.
Tom Gillies, Chafford Hundred, England
Having worked in the NHS for 14 years I am continuing to see very low morale from my colleagues. Having gone through as many changes in both the direction of the NHS Service Provision and enough internal re-organisations to last a life time, it is now time to give staff some stability and recognition. Every day we have to deal with change management of some sort(normally politically orientated), needing to find more savings (although already overstretched) and these savings are normally met by staff cuts (I will add that workload demands are not reduced however). It is assumed that the staff care so much they will accept the additional workload and get on with it. I think that this "suck it and see" approach will no longer wash with the masses. Stop looking at statistics and start caring about the staff.
Agnes Marie Cromar, Dundee, Scotland
Ask anyone who has actually been to hospital in the past few years and they will have nothing but praise for the NHS. Our national health service is a national treasure. The Tory party and the right wing press should stop doing down our public services and accept that great strides have been made in improving a service that was left on its knees after years of Thatcherite neglect.
Pete Mant, Oxford, UK
The waiting list is getting shorter? Are they using a smaller font?
My elderly parents have both needed treatment in the NHS and both have found it was excellent - in fact my mother wrote to thank the local hospital following surgery. They both find it confusing that they regularly read in the media that the NHS is getting worse, whilst their personal experience has been just the opposite
Bob Richardson, Welwyn Garden City UK
It's easy to reduce waiting lists if you put people on another, excluded from the stats, waiting list to wait to get on the official waiting list. Another con that is used is to remove people from the waiting list as soon as an appointment is made, then the hospital cancels the appointment and they go back on the waiting list-waiting list. Spin and nonsense.
I work in the NHS and can say there has been a mass of recruitment, wages are better, and slowly service is improving across the board. All thanks to the massive investment that the government has put into the NHS.
I think you'll find that the basis for this claim comes from the managers - masses of unnecessary personnel who have been installed to fudge figures to show that targets are being reached when they are clearly not. It's time that the CEO cut through the bureaucracy and allowed an underpaid, undervalued, overworked and frustrated staff to do what they are trained to do and let the interfering managers do what they are better suited for like tax collecting or traffic warden duties!
Andy Balding, Plymouth, UK.