Waiting times for scans and imaging procedures have fallen - but there are still 'unacceptable' waits that could impact on trusts' ability to hit 18-week targets.

A Healthcare Commission report says that trusts' imaging services have 'significantly improved' since 2001 when it found outdated equipment, staff shortages and long waits. There are now more modern scanners and other equipment, staff productivity has gone up and waiting times are going down.

But improvements are patchy, says the report: many trusts are still not reporting images any faster than in 2001 and there are 'major unexplained differences' in referral rates. There are also 'wide variations' in trust productivity and costs, it adds.

Ten per cent of imaging departments receive more than 615 referrals from accident and emergency per 1,000 attendances while another 10 per cent receive just 308 referrals per 1,000.

The commission says there is an 'urgent need' to standardise how imaging is done. It says differing resource needs for each activity must be recognised, to speed up the introduction of tariffs and enable better value-for-money comparisons to be made across the NHS.

The report also suggests financial pressures mean equipment that is expensive to run, such as magnetic resonance imaging units, is not being used to full capacity. It says: 'With the emphasis on meeting the 13-week milestone for waits and ultimately the 18-week patient journey from referral to the start of treatment, it is essential that unused capacity is released without delay'.

The commission says imaging departments should examine how. patients move through their departments, their opening hours, staff roles, and whether some examinations or result reporting should be allocated to 'other NHS providers or the independent sector'.

More information
The Healthcare Commission's report