Waiting lists rise 64% in two years

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The Independent Online
THE WAITING list for hospital out-patient appointments has grown by 29,000 people, which brings the increase over the past two years to 64 per cent, according to government figures published yesterday.

The number of patients waiting more than 13 weeks had risen to 85,000 by the end of June, up 29,000 on the previous quarter. Ministers reacted to the further rise by announcing extra spending of pounds 30m to try to reduce the growing queues to see a consultant. John Denham, a Health minister, said that the Government would address the long out-patient lists.

"More than three-quarters of people get an out-patient appointment within 13 weeks of it being requested," he said. "The vast majority of patients are seen within 26 weeks. But it could be better. We are determined to work with the staff to make things better - backed up with millions of pounds of extra money."

Doctors and opposition MPs blamed the rise on the Government's waiting list initiative, which has seen the in-patient lists fall by more than 200,000 in a year, alleging that delays at the out-patient stage are preventing patients getting on to the waiting list for operations.

The shadow Health Secretary, Liam Fox, described the figures as a "disgrace", pointing out that the Government chose to release them on the same day as GCSE results. "More and more patients are having to wait before they are even allowed on the waiting list under Labour," he said.

"If Frank Dobson [the Secretary of State for Health] had half so much interest in patients as he has in cooking the books, we might be able to do something about the growing problems in the health service."

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, said: "This is a huge stack of patients waiting to get on a waiting list. If only half of those new referrals go on to waiting lists for operations then that amounts to a 100,000 hidden increase in waiting lists - the opposite of what the Government is trying to achieve.

"It is a gross and unethical distortion of clinical priorities to force patients to wait to see a consultant in order to fiddle the waiting list figures."

In June 1997, just after theGovernment came to power, the number waiting for an out- patient appointment was 295,000. It has since risen in every quarter bar one, by a total of 190,000, an increase of 64.4 per cent. The figures are bound to embarrass Mr Dobson, who has made cutting waiting lists one of the planks of his drive to improve the NHS.

Peter Hawker, the chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants' committee, said he was worried that the Government was grasping at "yet another one-off, piecemeal initiative" which would not help in the long- term. "The current in-patient waiting list initiative distorted clinical priorities and contributed to the rise in out-patient waiting times," he said.

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