Published: 30/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5962 Page 23

Reducing waiting times for elective treatment has remained the single most important goal for the NHS since 1997 and, in particular, reducing the numbers of very long waits. By 2008, the target is to bring down waits - both outpatient and inpatient -to 18 weeks.

Although waiting times have come down, Dr Foster's quarterly analysis shows considerable geographical variation in the length of waiting times between strategic health authorities.

The first table shows that a quarter of operations in Kent and Medway SHA and onefifth in South West Peninsula SHA have waiting times in excess of six months. Their average waiting times were 115 and 106 days respectively.

In contrast, only 4 per cent of operations in Birmingham and the Black Country SHA have a waiting time longer than six months. Its average was 65 days.

Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire and Surrey and Sussex SHAs were the only two to achieve a reduction in waiting times from Q4 2004 to Q1 2005, down 4 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.

North West London, North East London and South West London SHAs all experienced increases of 10 per cent or more over the same period.

The long-term trend is more encouraging. From 2001-04 there was a 7.7 per cent cut in overall waiting times, with considerable reductions for some common conditions, particularly those with very long waits in 2001. Waits for complex, combined and repeat coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) operations fell by 43 per cent and for knee replacements by 25 per cent.

The third table shows the SHAs with the longest and shortest average waiting times for 10 common operations. Waits for hip replacements vary between 242 days in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland SHA and 94 days in North West London SHA. The longest wait for percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) - 121 days at Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire SHA - was 40 times higher than at Essex SHA. On average, the waiting times at SHAs with the longest wait were 2.5 times more than in SHAs with the shortest.

In the last quarter, with the appointment of a new health secretary, there have been signs of a further push for increased capacity with independent treatment centres and the potential for greater expansion of private sector provision.

This should help to improve waiting times.' .

Dr Marc Farr is product development manager at Dr Foster (phone 020-7330 0472 or visit www.

drfoster. co. uk). The next Dr Foster page is on 14 July and will cover waiting times for cancer patients.