We can’t say what proportion of Scots are on NHS waiting lists

18 June 2024
What was claimed

There are 840,000 Scots on NHS waiting lists.

Our verdict

This is the number of cases, not the number of people, on the three main NHS Scotland waiting lists. Some people will be waiting for more than one thing, so Public Health Scotland says the data shouldn’t be combined in this way.

What was claimed

One in six or seven Scots are on NHS waiting lists.

Our verdict

This misrepresents data from Public Health Scotland, which shows the number of cases—not people—on waiting lists. We don’t know how many individual people are on these NHS waiting lists in Scotland, or what share of Scotland they represent, because some are waiting for more than one thing. ONS survey data suggests about 22% of people aged 16 and over in Scotland are waiting for something on the NHS.

840,000 Scots are stuck on an NHS waiting list.

One in seven Scots on an NHS waiting list here in Scotland.

We’d grow the economy by helping the one in seven Scots currently on waiting lists.

During TV election debates earlier this month, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross MSP, the leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwar MSP and the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, claimed that 840,000 people, or “one in seven Scots”, are on NHS waiting lists in Scotland. 

This misrepresents data from Public Health Scotland (PHS), however. 

The data used to reach these figures comes from combining three types of waiting list: outpatient, inpatient and key diagnostic tests. PHS says that individual patients may appear more than once on these lists if they are waiting for more than one type of treatment or test. 

We don’t know the exact number of individual patients in Scotland who are on these NHS waiting lists. We do have new survey data, which suggests that about one million, or about one in four or five people in Scotland aged 16 and over, are waiting for something on the NHS, but this is not official NHS waiting list data.

Politicians and the media must take care to use the best evidence available and describe it accurately, so people are not misled about the state of public services. If data is presented without context or caveats, it can give an incomplete or misleading picture.

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What does the data show? 

Mr Sarwar reached his figure of 840,000 by combining three ways NHS waits are measured in Scotland: ongoing waits for new outpatient appointments, ongoing waits for treatment as an inpatient or day case, and the number of ongoing waits for one of eight key diagnostic tests (upper endoscopies, lower endoscopies, colonoscopies, cystoscopies, CT scans, MRI scans, barium studies and non-obstetric ultrasounds). 

According to the latest PHS data, on 31 March 2024 the size of the waiting list for new outpatient appointments was 534,178, the size of the waiting list for inpatient appointments was 156,108 and the size of the waiting list for key diagnostic tests was 150,014.

The sum of these three figures is 840,300, which is between a sixth and a seventh of the estimated population of Scotland in 2022.

Spokespeople for Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives confirmed with Full Fact that this was where their numbers came from. The Scottish Liberal Democrats declined to comment.

The problem with the 840,300 figure is that it represents the number of waits, rather than the number of individuals who are waiting. This is important, because some people will be waiting for more than one thing.

As a result, PHS has specifically said that “figures for the number of ongoing waits of patients waiting for a new outpatient attendance and those waiting for treatment as either an inpatient or day case should not be added together to determine the proportion of the total population waiting for these types of care”.

PHS confirmed by email that it did not have verified data on the number of individuals on these lists, saying: “an individual could be waiting for two separate new outpatient appointments for different conditions, or they could be waiting for both a new outpatient appointment and one of the key diagnostic tests for the same condition. In both cases they would be counted twice in the quoted figure of 840,000. By extension, ​​the size of the waiting list should not be divided by the population to reach a proportion of Scottish residents who are on a waiting list.”

Scottish Labour’s spokesperson told us: “Public Health Scotland may suggest that the same patient may appear on more than one of this lists, depending on their condition and treatment requirements but they are unable to say how many or what proportion of patients on lists they may relate to and there is no other data gathered on the number of individuals on waiting lists.” 

The spokesperson also said the figure was “likely to be an underestimate”, saying that these figures don’t include waits for mental health outpatient treatment, or waits for physiotherapy, occupational therapy, chiropody/podiatry and orthotics services.

According to the latest results of the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, conducted between October 2023 and March 2024, 22% of adults (aged 16 or over) in Scotland said they were waiting for a hospital appointment, a test or to start receiving medical treatment through the NHS. This amounts to about a million people.So it would be fair to say based on this that about one in four or five adults in Scotland are waiting for something on the NHS, although we can’t say that NHS waiting list data shows this.  

It’s important to note that these two ways of looking at NHS waits—the PHS statistics and the ONS survey estimates—are measuring different things. 

The two sources have different definitions of a waiting list, and their data is collected in different ways. (The ONS survey is self-reported, whereas PHS statistics come from NHS Boards’ patient level records).

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Update 21 June 2024

We added more detail to explain the differences between the PHS and ONS waiting list data.

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