Missed hospital appointments may have cost the NHS in England £614m in the last financial year, a survey suggests.
Many patients fail to turn up
Tory party vice chairman Grant Shapps submitted requests to 264 NHS Trusts asking for details of missed appointments for the year 2005-2006.
The figures he received from 141 hospital trusts suggest 6.8 million appointments were missed during the year throughout the NHS.
The government has pledged to reduce the figure.
Mr Shapps' figures show an increase from 2004-2005 - when 5.7 million appointments were missed - and 2003-2004, when the figure stood at 5.1 million.
It is thought patients fail to turn up for around one in 10 hospital appointments.
Mr Shapps said he decided to investigate the issue after hearing of a constituent who tried to send £15 to local trust, only to have the cheque returned.
"That spurred me on to uncover the true cost of missed appointments across the NHS, only to discover that the figure is almost as big as the total NHS deficit.
"It is just another demonstration of the inept manner in which the government is running the NHS."
Mr Shapps said the government had invested £6.2 billion on a new NHS computer system, which was beset with problems and running over budget - but had failed simply to remind patients to turn up for appointments.
It is thought that the NHS in England ran up a deficit of at least £600m during 2005-2006.
Efforts to try to balance the books have seen more than seven thousand NHS jobs go in recent weeks.
According to Mr Shapps figures, London's Guy's and St Thomas's NHS Trust has the worst record for missed appointments - running up a bill for £10.8 million last year.
This was followed by Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University (£8.6 million) and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals (£7.3 million).
The Department of Health said cutting the number of missed hospital appointments was a priority.
A spokesman said the rate of missed appointments was actually going down - from 12.2% in 2001 to 10.9% in the most recent quarter.
"We know that some NHS organisations are using innovative ways - such as text reminders - to help reduce missed appointments, and would always encourage this, to complement the electronic booking services which are being rolled out right across the NHS.
"But essentially patients have responsibilities as well as rights and part of
this is remembering to turn up for appointments."