Waiting times review must not dilute standards, warn MPs

MPs have warned NHS England (NHSE) not to use its review of waiting times to ‘water down’ standards and make failing targets easier to meet.

In a far-reaching report on waiting times for cancer and elective surgery published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said increasing numbers of patients were ‘being let down by the NHS’s continued failure to meet deadlines for waiting times’.

The waiting list for elective care has grown from 2.7 million in March 2013 to 4.2 million in November 2018. Much of the increase has occurred since 2016 when NHS England removed penalties for NHS trusts breaching the referral to treatment time target. It is now more than three years since the NHS last met the target for 92% of patients to be seen within 18-weeks of referral. In November 2018, just 44% of NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts met the standard.

The PAC report said NHS organisations were no longer being sufficiently held to account for ensuring patients’ rights to treatment within maximum waiting times and that the bodies responsible for managing the standards ‘appear to lack curiosity’ about the impact this has on patient welfare.

Although the Committee welcomed NHS England’s current review of waiting times, it raised concerns it could be used to dilute targets and reduce accountability.

‘Some stakeholders are concerned that, given the ongoing failure by the NHS to meet the 18-week standard, the review could be used as an opportunity to make the target easier to meet or less appropriate. The review is an opportunity to put patient experience and outcomes at the centre of waiting time standards, but the health bodies involved must ensure that strong accountability for performance remains if standards are being altered,’ said the report.

The PAC urged the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to ensure that any changes help improve outcomes for patients. It also called on the DHSC and NHSE to clarify by the end of this year how they intend to get waiting times standards back on track.

Commenting on the report, Independent Healthcare Providers Network CEO David Hare said:‘Having swift access to high quality care is a top priority for the public but the simple truth is that patients are waiting ever longer for NHS treatment whilst having no idea when vital legally binding targets will again be met.

‘The government must heed the clear warnings expressed in this report and set out a clear plan for improving speed of access to NHS care, including by using the spare capacity available in the independent sector.’