People in the UK face longer waits for non-emergency surgery than some other western countries, according to a survey published today.

The international study for the US-based Commonwealth Fund also highlighted difficulties in seeing GPs out of hours.

Some 55% of UK patients said they had problems getting access to GP care at weekends and nights.

This was worse than Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

More people from Britain than any of the other six countries in the survey had to wait more than six months for elective surgery, the study found. Some 15% had to wait that long.

Canada was next worst with 14% and the Netherlands the best with 2%.

UK patients were least likely to have problems paying medical bills. Only 1% said they had difficulties, compared to 19% in the US and 8% in both Australia and New Zealand.

Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the Health Foundation, which works to improve the quality of healthcare across the UK and beyond, said: "Once again the Commonwealth Fund survey shows how thankful we should be that cost is not a major barrier to people accessing care in the UK. Compared to the US we do staggeringly well.

"We should not be complacent. The challenges for the UK from this important survey are clear. Even in waiting times for non-emergency surgery, an area where Government has achieved the most in recent years, we still need to do more."

The Department of Health defended its performance.

A spokesman said: "Over the last 10 years there has been record investment in the NHS, with over £90 billion being spent this year, which will rise to £110 billion by 2010/11.

"That money is paying for more staff and better pay, one million more operations a year, over 100 new hospitals and improved access to healthcare for millions of people. Ninety-two per cent of patients rate their experience as good or excellent.

"Delivering the highest quality of care for all, as good or better than any country in the world, must be a fundamental goal of the NHS.

"Lord Darzi's interim report published earlier in the month sets out a vision for the next phase of the NHS and how to meet this goal."

On waiting times, the spokesman said: "By 2008, no one will wait over 18 weeks for their treatment. We are confident of achieving the historic milestone.

"Indeed, in some parts of the country this is already happening. Ten years ago, 284,000 patients had been waiting for an operation for longer than six months. Today it is 500."

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