Latest research by the College of Health says patients are being forced to wait as long as four years for an outpatient appointment.

Its national waiting-list helpline, which collects information direct from trusts, found waiting times for referral by GPs to one orthopaedic surgeon were up to 208 weeks - four years. It found one outpatient appointment in neurology of 126 weeks and a 95-week wait to see an eye specialist.

Director Marianne Rigge said 94 per cent of patients were seen within Patient's Charter standards, but 'it is precisely because the numbers are so small that the problem should be manageable'.