PERFORMANCE New figures rushed out ahead of general election announcement

Published: 07/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5949 Page 6

The number of patients waiting more than six months for an orthopaedic operation plummeted by over 10,000 last month, delivering the government's unofficial progress target, officials have claimed.

'Initial management information' shows that just 13,000 orthopaedic patients were waiting over six months for surgery in March 2005.

The projections were rushed out by the Department of Health moments ahead of Tuesday's announcement of the date of the general election. The final, confirmed, figures are due to be published tomorrow.

February's finalised figures showed that 25,700 orthopaedic patients were on waiting lists for more than six months - meaning that if the initial figures for March are confirmed there will have been a drop of around 12,000 six-month orthopaedic breachers in one month.

The unofficial target was for an 80 per cent drop to 13,000 by April 2005, based on March 2002 baseline figures.

Long waiting lists in orthopaedics are the biggest danger to the NHS achieving the target of no patients waiting more than six months by December 2005.

A letter sent to strategic health authority chief executives from DoH director of access Margaret Edwards spelled out the orthopaedic target last August (news, page 7, 12 August 2004).

This week Ms Edwards said the NHS was on target to deliver the final target in nine months' time. It has taken over a year of intensive central support to reduce orthopaedic sixmonth waiters by 31,300 since last January - a drop of 55 per cent.

The new low figures are due largely to accelerated trouble-shooting work at the 32 worst offending trusts according to Matthew Kershaw, project lead with the DoH's National Orthopaedic Project, which began work in January 2004.

The project has also reported that orthopaedic patients now wait on average just 12 weeks, compared to 19 weeks in 1998.

Mr Kershaw said intensive work will continue with a 'rotating' list of needy, under-performing trusts to ensure the target is met by December.

He added that a detailed central analysis of bottlenecks by procedure should be completed and available to managers within the next two months.

Meanwhile, the latest figures available for orthopaedic outpatient waits show patients referred by a GP waiting more than 13 weeks to see to an orthopaedic specialist dropped by 28 per cent to 73, 462 in October-December 2004 compared to the corresponding period in 2003. The government expects no patients to be waiting longer than 13 weeks to see a specialist by the end of the year.