Labour Party health plans pose huge challenges as NHS enters volatile financial landscape, says The King's Fund

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The King's Fund warned today that waiting time targets and other measures outlined today by the Labour Party will pose huge challenges for the NHS as it enters a risky financial climate which could destabilise services.

Responding to Labour Party health manifesto pledges to increase patient choice; introduce a maximum 18-week wait for hospital treatment; and increase the number of operations carried out in the private sector, King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said:

'These are all welcome ambitions which will stretch the health service, but the government deserves credit for ending long waits for treatment, ensuring better patient access to services, and making progress in tackling the big killer diseases.

'But this is a risky time for the NHS with the service facing worrying financial pressures. New reforms, such as the payment by results system for paying hospitals, are changing the financial landscape of the NHS, making it a more volatile place. On top of this, hospitals up and down the country are predicting multi-million-pound deficits this year.

'The 18-week target for operations, in particular, is an extremely ambitious target - never before have we measured the entire patient journey from the GP consultation to the day of the operation. This will need heavy investment in diagnostic staff and equipment, more doctors, nurses and allied health professionals and greater use of the independent sector, as the government has recognised.

'The broad direction of travel of both Labour and the Conservatives, particularly on patient choice, is similar. We welcome this but we need to ensure that all patients - even the most disadvantaged - are able to make choices. However, this is a seminal moment and all the main parties have recognised that the health service needs to start looking at what it does much more through the eyes of the patient. People increasingly want tailored, personal services - for too long the time of the professional, and not the patient, has been the most valuable consideration.'

Niall Dickson added that the case of Margaret Dixon last week highlighted the tremendous strain on the health service, despite unprecedented levels of funding.

'Although totally unacceptable, what happened to Margaret Dixon was not indicative of the general state of the NHS," he said. "What it has illustrated, though, is the kind of pressures that hospitals can be under, particularly if they are having to meet stringent waiting time targets. Tough targets can bring real benefits but they also mean that the whole system can be put under real pressure.'

He also urged ministers not to lose sight of other important areas, by adding:

'There is a genuine fear that the targets and ambitions outlined today could distract the NHS from some of the other important things it needs to do. Tackling waiting times and waiting lists are very important but other areas, such as mental health and the management of people with long-term conditions, are also in urgent need of improvement.'

Notes to editors

1. For further information or interviews, please contact The King's Fund media and public relations office on 020 7307 2585. An ISDN line is available for interviews on 020 7637 0185.

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.