Clash of the manifestos: are NHS waiting times up or down?

Published: 29th Apr 2015

"Already millions more people can see a GP 7 days a week, from 8am-8pm"—Conservative manifesto

"Fewer patients waiting longer than the 18, 26 and 52 week targets than in May 2010. We have slashed the number of people who wait over a year for the treatment they need, from over 18,000 to under 500"—Conservative manifesto

"More people are facing long waits for tests, treatment, or to see a GP"—Labour manifesto

Hospital waiting times are a complex picture and both parties' claims can be justified using different measures.

The picture on waiting time performance depends on which type of patient you look at. Focusing in on the target that NHS England patients should begin treatment within 18 weeks of a GP referral, performance is worse in 2015 than in 2010 for patients who've started treatment in recent months, but better for those who are still on the waiting list.

That may seem contradictory, but the two trends are consistent. When more of those who've been waiting a long time enter treatment this shows up as a rise in long waits for treated patients. But fewer long-waiters remain on the waiting list.

That's borne out by the figures on 18-week waits for both sets of patients.

Patients who began NHS England treatment in February 2015 were more likely to have waited at least 18 weeks for it than patients beginning treatment at the same point in 2010. Of those admitted to hospital for treatment, 13% had waited 18 weeks or more in February 2015, an increase from 8% in February 2010.

For patients who weren't admitted the figure was 5% in February 2015 and 2% in February 2010.

In February 2015, 7% of those on the waiting list (for either admitted or non-admitted treatment) had been waiting 18 weeks or more, down from 10% in February 2010 but up from 6% two years earlier.

These figures are for "consultant-led" treatment, which is any kind in hospitals or community care centres for which a consultant has overall responsibility.

On GPs, the Conservatives are right that opening hours have been extended. The Coalition government has introduced a scheme to extend opening hours in some practices.

The first wave of funding was estimated to cover seven million patients registered at around 1,100 practices, while the second wave was estimated to cover a further eleven million people.

Not all of these practices were offering 8am-8pm appointments every day of the week. In the first wave some of the GP surgeries opened more limited hours during weekends, for example.

But some evidence suggests that ease of access to GP surgeries may be going in the wrong direction, as Labour claims.

According to the GP Patient Survey, in 2013/14 16% of patients waited a week or more to speak to someone at their GP surgery last time they tried, compared to 13% two years previously in 2011/12. And 11% couldn't get an appointment, compared to 9% in 2011/12.


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