comment: But next year, Crisp report must have better news on diagnostic capacity

Published: 13/05/2004, Volume II4, No. 5905 Page 15

According to NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp, the 'stock' of the NHS is rising at last, as a result of the cash-backed reforms of the last four years (news, pages 6-7). The begrudging smattering of quiet applause from most of the national media should not be allowed to dampen the spirits of NHS managers. All those extra 'pen-pushers', as The Sun would have it, are clearly earning their money.

It is disingenuous to belittle the halving of the maximum wait since Labour came to power by claiming that average waits have only fallen slightly. The fact that, for example, the number of people waiting more than 13 weeks for an outpatient appointment has dropped by 90 per cent from 400,000 four years ago is simple, unavoidable proof of the impact of reforms so far.

Of course public perceptions will lag behind a change in reality. This is partly because most people have relatively little contact in the average year with what they perceive as 'the NHS' - their local hospital. It is also because good experiences of local services tend not to be translated into attitudes to the NHS as a national organisation, largely due to negative media coverage.

But none of this means that there are not legitimate concerns about Sir Nigel's report. While the Conservatives stuck to their increasingly tired guns, the Lib Dems' thoughtful Paul Burstow highlighted one obvious area of danger - diagnostic capacity.

As our Big Story makes clear (pages 10-11), progress so far on cancer treatment waiting times is being endangered by shortages in diagnostics. Although the annual report has little to say on this, the problem stretches across most clinical areas.

Next year, Sir Nigel will expect - and need - to have something equally positive to say about diagnostic capacity and use if the NHS is to continue to see its stock rise. l