Leap in waiting times for key NHS health tests despite Cameron's pledge

The number of NHS patients waiting more than three months for tests has increased nine-fold in a year.

In June, 1,763 people had been waiting for at least 13 weeks for one of 15 diagnostic tests – including MRI and heart scans, ultrasound and colonoscopies – according to Government figures released yesterday. This compares with only 190 in June 2010.

The figures came a month after the Prime Minister personally pledged to keep waiting times low. Health ministers were quick to point to a small month-on-month improvement in June, but with nearly 600,000 people in total waiting for a test to diagnose or exclude a medical condition, June is the worst month of 2011 so far.

The Department of Health figures also showed that 12,521 people with suspected heart conditions, cancers or intestinal diseases had been waiting for more than six weeks for tests – almost four times the number waiting a year ago.

The proportion of patients waiting longer than four hours in A&E units fell back slightly at the beginning of 2011 but remains higher than at any time since 2004.

Critics said last night that the figures were a sign the NHS was buckling under the pressure of structural reforms and demands to save £20bn by 2015. John Healey, the shadow Health Secretary, called the nine-fold increase "completely unacceptable", while the British Medical Association expressed "serious concern" as delayed diagnosis could mean patients missing out on life-saving treatments.

Dr Anna Dixon, Director of Policy at The King's Fund think tank, said: "While waiting times remain low in historical terms, the rise against a number of key measures since this time last year shows how difficult it will be for the NHS to meet the Prime Minister's pledge to keep waiting times low as the spending squeeze begins to bite."

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