Doubts over NHS waiting time figures, after watchdog uncovers 'inconsistencies'

 

Health Reporter

Serious doubts have been cast over the reliability of NHS waiting times figures, after the Government’s financial watchdog identified “inconsistencies” in the way that hospital trusts measure and record data.

In a sample of 650 patient files from seven NHS trusts, the National Audit Office found 202 incomplete records, and 167 instances of errors being made in recording when patients began and ended their wait for treatment.

In 129 of these cases the trust had reported the patient waiting for a shorter time than was actually the case and for 26 patients, trusts incorrectly said they had met the key 18-week waiting time target, when in reality they had not.

The NAO said, in light of their report, published waiting times figures for the NHS “need to be treated with a degree of caution”.

It is the second major warning over the reliability of key official data in as many weeks, following the decision of the UK Statistics Authority to withdraw the gold standard “national statistics” status from police recorded crime figures in England and Wales, amid allegations that the data had been subject to “a degree of fiddling”.

The NAO’s report to Parliament on NHS waiting times in England did not make any allegations of intentional altering of figures.

However, it did refer to recent allegations that waiting times for cancer treatment were changed at the Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust. Health watchdog the Care Quality Commission reported that three members of staff at the hospital said they had felt “pressured, bullied or harassed” to change official data on patients’ care so as not to breach national guidelines. The hospital is now subject to a criminal investigation.

The 18-week waiting time standard – the time between a GP referral and the start of consultant-led treatment – was introduced in 2008 and, according to existing figures, had a “rapid and significant effect on reducing the numbers of people waiting a long time for treatment”, the NAO said. Between October 2011 and October 2012 the number of people each month waiting longer than 18 weeks fell from 234,000 to 138,000 – although this figure has risen again recently to 169,000 in October 2013.

Waiting times are being carefully monitored by the Government, as concerns grow among front line staff that the health service is struggling to cope with the biggest financial squeeze in its history.

A spokesperson for the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Overall waiting times remain low and stable, with the number of patients waiting longer than 18, 26 and 52 weeks lower than at any time under the last Government. It’s crucial that reporting is always accurate, and we will work with the NHS to make sure hospital staff get the support they need to get this right.”

The NAO said that NHS in England lacked “sufficient assurance” about how trusts are performing and urged health officials to seek “additional assurance, possibly through a regime of test checking.”

Amyas Morse, comptroller and auditor general at the NAO said that “against a background of an increasing number of patients being referred to trusts, the financial pressure on the NHS and the need to make efficiency savings”, hospitals were finding it more challenging to meet the 18-week standard.

“If this challenge is to be met, then performance information should be reliable. However, we have found significant errors and inconsistencies in how trusts record waiting time, masking a good deal of variation between trusts in actual waiting times,” he said. “The solution is not costly new processes, rather making sure existing processes work properly and are properly scrutinized.” 

The report also found that patients were unaware of their rights and responsibilities under the 18-week standard. Most trusts refer a patient back to their GP if they miss their first outpatient appointment – restarting the waiting time clock. The NAO estimated that patients who missed their first hospital appointments cost the NHS £225m in 2012-13.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Pre-Sales Consultant

    £20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are a £multi-million award w...

    Recruitment Genius: Support Workers - Mother's Help / Buddy Support Role

    £8 - £11 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A gentleman with congenital achondropla...

    Recruitment Genius: Training Officer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Training Officer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Specialist - Document Management

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading provider of document ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent