Published: 28/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 5966 Page 11
The NHS will have to offer patients a diagnostic scan within six months by November under new plans to clear 'bottlenecks' on the way to meeting the 2008 18-week maximum total wait target.
Any patient who has been waiting 20 weeks for an MRI or CT scan will be given the choice of having the scan within six weeks at another hospital - whether NHS or private.
This will make the maximum wait 26 weeks.
Next April, the programme will be extended to 'the overwhelming majority of imaging scans', including ultrasound and bone imaging scans. Patients will be given alternative diagnostic options at 16 weeks, and the maximum wait will go down to 20 weeks.
The Department of Health expects 80,000 patients waiting for a nonurgent scan to be contacted and given the option of receiving an earlier scan at an alternative hospital.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt said: 'We know that many patients are caught in a 'bottleneck' of waiting for a scan or other diagnostic service, before they are referred for an operation.
'This can be a worrying and uncertain time for patients. To them it is very much part of the time they have to wait. This scheme will help to tackle this 'hidden waiting list'.
It is an important step on the way towards our goal of a total maximum wait of 18 weeks from surgery door to hospital treatment by 2008 - which includes time for any diagnostic tests that are needed.'
Independent Healthcare Forum executive director Tim Elsigood said the independent sector had the capacity to meet demand, although he admitted it would be a 'challenge'.
'The independent sector will respond to these requirements and will work on the principle that prices will be consistent with those of the NHS, ' he said. 'There is always capacity across the country but the question is whether it will match the requirements and be in places where it is needed.' He said it was hard to say how ambitious the new target was because there were no centrally recorded figures on diagnostic waiting times.
Professor David Haslam, immediate past chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: 'In the long run, investment in premises and facilities would be the optimum way forward.
But the hidden waiting lists for diagnostics have been a major problem for patients and doctors for several years and anything that helps to reduce the time to diagnosis has to be a benefit.' Royal College of Radiologists president Professor Janet Husband said: 'It is important to ensure that, where provision is from the independent sector, costs for processes of integration are identified, and that the new service does not destabilise local provision, particularly in respect of urgent and emergency care.'