NHS organisations must work with allied health professionals to bring down 'unacceptable' waiting times for services such as speech therapy, health secretary Alan Johnson has told them.

The health secretary said there would be no new top-down targets, but allied health professional waiting times will be included in the new community services dataset, which organisations must update. Patients will also be able to refer themselves to services such as physiotherapy.

He told an audience of senior allied health professionals in London: "It is not acceptable for children to be on a waiting list of 18 months simply to be assessed by a speech and language therapist or for an elderly person who needs a podiatrist to be prevented from leaving the house because their mobility is impaired. This will require all SHAs, primary care trusts and trusts to work with allied health professionals to improve access to these essential services."

Inclusion of allied health professionals in the community services dataset, which will become mandatory in 2010, will allow them to record referral to treatment times. Self-referral for AHP services would improve access and help PCTs pursue the health inequalities agenda, Mr Johnson added.

"In most parts of the country patients have to get a referral from a GP or another doctor. This adds an unnecessary bureaucratic layer."

Doctors' time would be better spent than signing referral forms and AHPs would be able to provide services more quickly to people who needed them, he said.

Overwhelmed services

He rejected claims from the British Medical Association that some physiotherapy services would be overwhelmed. He said: "That's not our experience. In places where patients are self-referring to physiotherapy and podiatry, evidence shows patients access quickly and are more likely to complete their course of treatment."

A report on self-referral to musculoskeletal physiotherapy services, published alongside his announcement, showed no increase in demand for services, high levels of satisfaction and lower NHS costs.

There were also high levels of equity, with equal access by all ethnic groups.

He was challenged on whether GPs and PCTs would make funds available for new services, but said that the Department of Health will publish guidance in November on how services should be commissioned.