18 week target for operations is a massive but welcome challenge, says The King's Fund in response to government's five-year NHS improvement plan

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The King's Fund today welcomed the government's five-year plan to improve the National Health Service and its emphasis on tackling chronic diseases, but warned that the new 18-week target for operations is a 'massive but welcome' challenge.

The King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said:

'The government's target to ensure patients wait no longer than 18 weeks from when they are referred by their family doctor to the time they enter the operating theatre is an extremely ambitious target. Ministers cannot wave a magic wand for this to happen and will need to invest heavily in diagnostics, recruit more doctors, nurses and allied health professionals and increase use of the independent sector. It certainly couldn't be achieved now, but if all the plans outlined in the government's proposals are achieved then there is no reason to say it couldn't be met by 2008.

'However, there is a genuine fear that this will distract the NHS from some of the other important things it needs to do. Tackling waiting times and waiting lists are very important to the public, but there are other areas in urgent need of improvement such as mental health and public health. These can sometimes drop down the list of priorities when the focus is too much on waiting times and waiting lists.'

Niall Dickson added: 'The government has woken up to the fact that tackling chronic conditions and soaring levels of obesity, diabetes and sexually transmitted disease are crucial for the long-term health of the nation. Handing priority to these somewhat unfashionable areas is a move we fully support.

'The battle lines for the next general election look like being drawn around patient choice. Undoubtedly, patients must be offered more choice about where, when and how they are treated. But this policy is just one strand in the overall fight to drive up standards in the NHS, along with targets and regulation. In all of this, we must make sure that vulnerable and disadvantaged patients, such as the mentally ill or those with multiple and complex chronic diseases, are also able to take advantage of these choices.'

Notes to editors

1. For further information, interviews or to attend the event, please contact the King's Fund media and public relations office on 020 7307 2585.

2. The King's Fund is an independent charitable foundation working for better health, especially in London. We carry out research, policy analysis and development activities, working on our own, in partnerships, and through grants. We are a major resource to people working in health, offering leadership and education courses; seminars and workshops; publications; information and library services; and conference and meeting facilities.