Published: 07/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5949 Page 23

Reducing waiting times for elective treatment has been the single most important goal for the NHS since 1997 and, in particular, reducing the numbers on very long waits. New targets have now been set to bring waits down to three and a half months - including both outpatient and inpatient - by 2008.

The Dr Foster analysis will be tracking, on a quarterly basis, how the service is doing in delivering this ambitious objective, and comparing performance between strategic health authority areas.

We aim to bring you information that is as up to date as possible, so we will be publishing quarterly using the previous quarter's information. The data presented here is for the last three months of 2004.

Bringing you the information so quickly means that the data is based on provisional information from the Nationwide Clearing Service rather than the official data released at the end of the year. But we believe it provides a valuable and timely guide to trends.

The first chart shows the good news: most parts of the country show a drop quarter on quarter at the end of last year. This was particularly true of operations such as cataracts, where there was a major drive to get waits to within 90 days by January 2005.

The second chart shows the change in average waits for a selection of common operations over the last few years. The marked reduction in cataract waits is evident.

However, wide variations continue between areas and trusts. The final table picks out the highest and lowest average waits for particular operations by SHA region. In some cases the longest waits are more than three times the shortest waits.

Roger Taylor is director of research at health information specialists Dr Foster (phone 020-7330 0415 or visit www.drfoster. co. uk). HSJ will be running a page of Dr Foster data analysis every fortnight, based on a rolling programme of six key indicators. The next Dr Foster page will appear on 14 April and will cover surgery waiting times for cancer patients.