NHS: Waiting Times — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 3rd May 2011.

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Photo of Baroness McDonagh Baroness McDonagh Labour 2:51 pm, 3rd May 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the waiting times for accident and emergency treatment and operations since the abolition of targets.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, the four-hour A&E waiting time standard was replaced by a set of clinical quality indicators, incorporating measures of timeliness, in April 2011. The proportion of patients waiting for less than four hours during the four weeks up to 24 April 2011 was 96.7 per cent compared to 98.3 per cent in April 2010. The average median referral-to-treatment waiting time for admitted patients was nine weeks in February 2011 and 8.4 weeks in May 2010.

Photo of Baroness McDonagh Baroness McDonagh Labour

I thank the noble Earl for that Answer. It would be clearer to the House to explain that waiting times for in-patients are at a three-year, all-time high since the 18-week target was set and that A&E waits are rising sharply. I am sure the Minister accepts the evidence that longer waits for treatment cost more per patient and clinical outcomes are worse. Can he tell the House how much on average it is costing per additional patient for those waiting over the 18-week target, which amounts to tens of thousands of patients each month?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, first, referral-to-treatment times fluctuate. Having looked at how the figures have moved over the past year or two, my advice is that they are broadly stable. The figures to which the noble Baroness referred were struck at a particularly pressurised time for the NHS. As she knows, there are all kinds of reasons why during the winter referral-to-treatment times tend to lengthen. However, the right in the NHS constitution to be treated within 18 weeks still remains. On accident and emergency waiting times, our clear advice from clinicians was that the four-hour target should be adjusted to reflect the clinical case mix and clinical priorities.

Photo of Lord Kakkar Lord Kakkar Crossbench

My Lords, I am sure the noble Earl is aware of the recent report from the Royal College of Surgeons on emergency surgical standards. Does he share its concerns about the potential detrimental impact of waiting list targets for elective procedures on clinical outcomes for patients requiring emergency operations? In asking the question, I declare an interest as a practising surgeon and professor of surgery.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, we are quite clear that timeliness remains an important ingredient in the care of patients. However, we are also clear that it is not the only measure of quality. On emergency surgery, there is no reason to expect that patients will be treated any less urgently in the future than they have been in the past. What matters is clinical priorities being set correctly.

Photo of Baroness Sharples Baroness Sharples Conservative

Is my noble friend aware that very recently I was in A&E on a trolley at St Thomas's for just under five hours waiting for a bed?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, that does concern me. I do not think anyone could endorse the practice of patients remaining on trolleys. I hope my noble friend was seen and tended to in a timely manner, but what she describes does not sound to me as though it conforms with good clinical practice. However, I stress to her that the figures I have show that nationally hospitals as a whole are adhering to the new standards that have been set.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

My Lords, do the Government recognise that, until the shortfall of 1,280 A&E consultants is met, the quality indicators will not be met because they require consultant sign-off? They must not be interpreted as rigid targets because of the variability of clinical scenarios that present. Indeed, the Primary Care Foundation report showed that this consultant shortfall must be met because only 15 to 25 per cent of attendances could be seen by co-located primary care. That figure is much lower than other people had previously estimated.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to raise the question of consultant numbers. I simply say that one of the clinical indicators that we have set for A&E is that there should be consultant sign-off. That in itself should encourage consultant capacity over time.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

My Lords, attendance at A&E has steadily gone up by more than 1.3 million over the past five years. How much is this the result of the lack of access to GP out-of-hours services? Is it not the case that too many people are presenting at A&E who should be seen at a primary care setting?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend completely. That is why we are quite clear that general practitioners have to take much greater direct responsibility for out-of-hours care. At the moment they can, if they choose, divorce themselves from that responsibility and I think that was a retrograde move. Equally, we are clear that we should encourage general practitioners to look at ways of avoiding unplanned emergency admissions to hospital in the first place. That will reduce pressure on A&E.

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as the person who introduced the 18-week target and limit. Clinical outcomes and efficiency are important but equally important are the pain and distress of the patients-and often their families-in waiting a long time. The Minister refers to things being no worse than in the past but in the past the waiting time after diagnosis-not counting the first consultation with a consultant or GP-to operation was two years waiting and three years for the whole patient journey. That has now been reduced to 18 weeks and six weeks after diagnosis. Does the Minister accept that it would be a tragedy, inflicting huge pain and distress on many people, if that was now to be abandoned?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord said. There is no doubt that great strides were made under the previous Government to reduce waiting times. That is entirely to the advantage of patients. However, the noble Lord will know that, as I mentioned earlier, the NHS constitution still retains the right for treatment within 18 weeks and the contracts between commissioners and providers still retain the financial penalties if the 18-week target is broken.

Photo of Baroness Wall of New Barnet Baroness Wall of New Barnet Labour

My Lords, will the Minister reflect on the discussion that he and I have had in the past around how important waiting times are to patients? Despite the new six-week "more quality" input into how the analysis is done and the processes to which my noble friend Lady Finlay has just referred, there is still an issue when people leave hospital. They say they waited longer. We need to rethink what that really means. In the context of waiting lists, if we separate elective and A&E, as my husband is proposing, then we will do away with all of that.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, the central point that the noble Baroness makes is absolutely right. We have to look at quality in the round. There is more to quality than simply timeliness, although, as I have said, timeliness of treatment is important. We need to develop indicators that show the full range of the level of care and service that patients receive. We are doing that.