The King's Fund welcomes progress on 18-week target but widespread variations in performance cause concern

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The King's Fund today welcomed the significant progress the NHS has made towards achieving the government's maximum waiting time target of treating all patients within 18 weeks from GP referral to operation.

Figures published today by the Department of Health show that an estimated 48 per cent of admitted patients are being treated within 18 weeks from referral - up from an estimated 35 per cent in December 2006.

King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said:

'The 18-week target will be the number one priority for the NHS over the next 18 months and we should not underestimate the huge strides the service has made towards meeting this ambitious target. A minority of patients routinely waited 18 months for inpatient treatment in the late 1990s and it will be a major achievement to bring the total waiting time down to no more than 18 weeks by the end of next year.

'It is a credit to the health service that waiting times have continued to fall steadily at a time of financial pressure. But today's figures also reveal the extent of the challenge facing the NHS with thousands of patients still waiting more than a year for an operation. There must also be concern over the widespread variations in performance across different parts of the country which mean very few patients in London, the south coast and East of England are being treated within 18 weeks. It also worrying that there are wide variations in treatment times for different specialties, especially for orthopaedics.

'Despite these concerns, today's figures support the government's view that the NHS is on course to treat all patients within 18 weeks by the end of next year. However, there is an issue over the quality of the waiting times data as the figures only capture six out of ten of the patients expected to be treated in hospital each month. In future the data will need to capture all patients being treated if it is to provide the most accurate picture of how long patients are waiting for treatment.'

Niall Dickson added: 'The biggest threat to the 18-week target will come from persistent and underlying financial deficits in some local areas. Achieving the target is expected to account for around a third of the additional NHS funding in 2007/8, but trusts with ongoing deficits may find it hard to allocate the necessary funds. As the target becomes more demanding it is inevitable that some NHS trusts will find it more difficult to achieve.

'The variation in waiting times in hospitals across England is not simply a question of finances. To achieve the target hospitals need to be more efficient in organising and delivering care. The trusts who have made the most progress are those who have increased productivity with new ways of working.'

Notes to editors

  1. The NHS Operating Framework 2007/08 has set two further mile-stones. By the end of March 2008:
    • 85 per cent of pathways where patients are admitted for hospital treatment should be completed within 18 weeks, and
    • 90 per cent of pathways that do not end in an admission should be completed within 18 weeks.
  2. For further information or interviews, please contact the King’s Fund media and public relations office on 020 7307 2585, 020 7307 2632 or 020 7307 2581. An ISDN line is available for interviews on 020 7637 0185.
  3. 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 funding. We are a major resource to people working in health and social care, offering leadership development programmes; seminars and workshops; publications; information and library services; and conference and meeting facilities.