Waiting times soar for key health tests

THE number of patients facing an anxious wait of more than six weeks for vital tests – including those for cancers – has rocketed by a huge 41,733 per cent in just a year.

In April 2010 – when Government guidelines ruled patients should wait no longer than a month-and-a-half to be tested – just three people were still to be tested having already waited for six weeks.

But figures for last month – coming after the Coalition Government scrapped the targets – show a total of 1,252 people were still on a waiting list for vital examinations. And, as well as cancer tests, these included patients in need of colonoscopies, MRI and CT scans and echocardiographies, which identitfy heart defects.

Patients are first referred by their GP and often scans are only ordered once they have seen a specialist – meaning a long wait between initial health concerns and eventual treatment.

The increase of more than 40,000 per cent here in Hastings and Rother is the highest in the country – dwarfing that of the second worst area, with figures for Suffolk going up by 16,100 per cent (or 161 people).

And the leader of Hastings Borough Council, Councillor Jeremy Birch, said the unprecedented increase was unacceptable and blamed the current Government for scrapping targets for waiting times.

Reacting angrily to the news he told the Observer: “Under the previous Government they (targets) transformed waiting times. They were entirely appropriate because they focused clinicians on the issues people care most about - like cancer tests.

“These figures show 1,252 people faced an agonising wait for longer than they should have which is not good enough.

“The fact we have the highest per centage increase in the country is very, very worrying and is something which needs to be addressed immediately.”

A spokesman for NHS Sussex, director Frank Sims, said staff were keen to avoid a repeat of the mammoth figure and put the increase down to a surge in demand rather than any cut backs or failings.

He said: “I have every confidence that there will be no patients waiting longer than six weeks for diagnostics at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust by the end of June.

“We have put in place additional sessions in diagnostics such as CT scans, MRI scans and ultrasound to achieve this.”

And Hastings MP Amber Rudd said she had been ‘reassured’ after a meeting with NHS chief executive Darren Grayson. Ms Rudd said: “I have spoken to Darren who said it (the figure) would be back down to zero next month.”

And she said that pledge proved the drop since targets were scrapped showed was coincidental. “The fact the number of people waiting more than six weeks will be back down to zero shows it is more management issue rather than a targets one .

“I was surprised to see these figures. We do not want anyone having to wait that length of time.”

However, Sara Hiom of Cancer Research UK, said it was important that people were not left waiting for tests - particularly those suspected of having cancer. She said: “The disease is easier to treat successfully if it is detected early and an appointment with an expert is a crucial first step in getting a speedy cancer diagnosis.

“When cancers are detected earlier, treatment is often milder and more effective.

“Many deaths could be avoided each year if cancers were diagnosed earlier.”