A report published today says that despite government reassurances that things have never been better, more people are waiting overall and the official figures fail to show how long people wait to get on a waiting list. "It simply isn't true that no-one is waiting for more than two years."
The Consumers' Association magazine says that patients can wait two to three years before they even see a consultant in the out-patients' department for assessment before being put on a list.
Although it acknowledges hospitals have virtually eradicated two-year waits as promised by the Patient's Charter, it says: "We think the promises of the Patient's Charter should match the experiences of patients. At present they don't. The two-year clockonly starts ticking when a patient sees a consultant."
"It is true that more patients are being treated than ever before but these facts do not tell the whole story".
Which says that in 1991 more than one million people were waiting for hospital admission. Three years later, 1,063,302 were waiting in England alone.
But the true waiting times are not known. "The only national figures currently published are complied by the independently-funded College of Health. These show that some patients wait well over a year or more to see a specialist. Some of the longest waits recorded are nearly three years for general surgery and more than two years for orthopaedic care."
Which? gives three examples. One heart patient waited 18 months for confirmation that he needed a triple by-pass operation and now faces a wait of up to18 months for surgery.
The magazine criticises the inequalities created by fundholding and non-fundholding practices. It describes how a father and son, by coincidence, suffered similar knee injuries. The son belonged to a GP fundholding practice and the father to a non-fundholding practice. The son was treated in hospital within six weeks but the father waited two-and-a-half years.
It says that general surgery, with 221,000 people waiting in March 1994, and orthopaedics with 200,000, are the longest lists. In these specialities 14,000 and 15,000 patients respectively had been waiting more than a year.
The West Midlands, North-east Thames and North Western regions had the longest lists in March 1994: 113,000, 107,000 and 105,000 respectively.
The Government has promised to set targets for the length of time a patient must wait for the initial specialist appointment.
Gerald Malone, the health minister, said last night that 12 per cent fewer people were waiting for more than a year compared with the same time last year. "The number waiting for more than a year has fallen from more than 200,000 in 1987 to less than 63,000 now."