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Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2007, 10:58 GMT
PM pledges 'eight-week op waits'
Generic picture of surgery
The government says waiting times are at their lowest ever
Patients are set to wait an average of eight weeks from GP referral to treatment in a push to bring down waiting times, Tony Blair has said.

It is part of a drive to ensure no patient waits longer than 18 weeks for their operation by the end of 2008.

Thirteen trusts are seeking to get the majority of patients treated within this time by the end of this year.

But critics said targets distorted clinical priorities and patients wanted personalised care.

We're not going to get away without doing more work
Matthew Kershaw, East Kent District Hospitals

The prime minister said: "The average wait is going to be seven to eight weeks, which effectively means an end to waiting as we know it.

"It will completely alter what's been the biggest problem in the NHS."

He said achieving that target would require a great deal of "change and innovation" in the NHS.

Some trusts are known to be considering extending operating times, with theatres set to be open in the evenings an at weekends.

And Mr Blair said he wanted to see a "framework" in place to allow the NHS to meet the 18-week target before he leaves office.

However, critics point out that some trusts are currently having to delay operations until the next financial year begins in April because they cannot afford to carry them out earlier.

The push comes as the Times newspaper reveals a poll of 3,000 doctors found more than half believe there has been no improvement in the NHS since 2002 when the government started to improve funding.

And almost three quarters felt the money had not been well spent.

'National campaign'

Next month, a nationwide campaign will aim "to focus the activities of all NHS staff" on cutting waiting times.

Hospital bosses will also be encouraged to send more patients abroad and make greater use of the private sector.

The reality is that in many parts of the country PCTs deep in deficit are slowing down patient referrals to hospital
Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb

But patients will also be urged to play their part by making sure they keep their appointments.

The government's target says no patient should wait longer than 18 weeks for their operation by the end of 2008 - although there are likely to be exceptions for clinical reasons or if patients opt to wait longer.

The 13 trusts who are seeking "early achiever" status have been set a target that 90% of patients needing hospital admission and 95% of those who can be cared for in other ways will be treated within 18 weeks by the end of 2007.

In East Kent, 80% of those patients who do not need to be admitted for operations are already seen within that time.

But in orthopaedics, only just over 10% of patients go from GP referral to operation within 18 weeks.

Matthew Kershaw, chief operating officer at East Kent District Hospitals, said: "We're not going to get away without doing more work. We're looking at whether we do additional theatre sessions during the day, in the evening and at weekends."

'Efficient care'

But Dr Jonathan Fielden, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants' committee, said more was needed than simply looking at longer opening times for operating theatres.

"Patients don't want to be treated as production line items - they want personal care."

HAVE YOUR SAY
How will the extra hours be funded? Where will the staff be sourced from?
JoJo Kavanagh, Essex

He said only concerted efforts by GPs and hospital staff working together would improve the patient's "pathway" through their NHS care.

Nigel Edwards, director of policy at the NHS Confederation which represents over 90% of NHS organisations, said: "This is probably the most challenging target that the health service has been asked to take on.

"Meeting the 18 week target by December 2008 will require many NHS trusts to completely redesign how patients flow through the system."

Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb said: "It makes sense to maximise the use of theatre space to treat patients as quickly as possible.

"But the reality is that in many parts of the country PCTs deep in deficit are slowing down patient referrals to hospital, extending waiting times rather than reducing them."

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, given the amount of investment in the NHS, waiting lists should already have fallen further."


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