comment: Short term, It is about hitting targets; long term, It is about better ones

Published: 30/01/2003, Volume II3, No. 5840 Page 17

The service seems to be on course to meet the outpatient waiting-list target of 21 weeks - and That is with a couple of months still to go (news focus, pages 11-12).

Although last year's 26-week figure was missed - just - an apparently smoother distribution of patients along the waiting-list timeline (unlike inpatients) means that steady progress so far should avoid serious obstacles.

Emergency access czar Professor Sir George Alberti, too, presents an air of quiet calm (the HSJ Interview, pages 20-21). Although his comments suggest he does not believe that the target of 90 per cent of accident and emergency patients waiting under four hours will be hit across the board, he is confident that progress made in the short time he has been in post will minimise political damage.

But could success lead to failure? Will the rush to squeeze outpatient waiting lists rebound on inpatients? Does clearing out the A&E department ignore the role of the wider health community in reducing demand and increasing quality?

Sir George intends his 10-year plan to include more sophisticated measures, which will surely provide a model for the other areas of reform. But a good performance on current targets - however imperfect - will raise the service's political stock in arguing for a more long-term strategy. Targets, good; better targets, better.