The NHS has breached the target for 90 per cent of admitted patients to start treatment within 18 weeks for the first time since 2011, the latest figures from NHS England reveal.

Only 89.9 per cent of admitted patients started treatment within 18 weeks in February. However, the non-admitted and incomplete pathway targets of 95 per cent and 92 per cent were met at 96.3 per cent and 93.5 per cent respectively.

HSJ previously reported that nationwide performance against the 18 week targets was declining.

Waiting times expert Rob Findlay said: “Of the three 18-week targets the admitted is the toughest and that’s why it’s the one that’s failed first.

“The problem is it’s a perverse target because it makes it difficult for hospitals to do the right thing by treating their longest waiting patients first after urgent patients, because for every long waiter they admit they have to find nine short waiters to admit.

“Those short waiters are coming in out of turn which is unfair.”

“In a sense the fact that this target has failed first is, in a way, an encouraging sign because it shows that hospitals are trying to do the right thing by treating their longest waiting patients.”

The length of the waiting list has also been hovering beneath 3 million in recent months.

While the size of the list steadily increased over the last few months of 2013, it shortened slightly in February, from 2.9m in January to 2.88m in February.

The actual size of the waiting list will be larger as Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals Trust, Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust, Derby Hospitals Foundation Trust and Tameside Hospital Foundation Trust did not report their 18 week data for February.

The number of patients waiting over 52 weeks to start treatment was also at its highest since a year ago, with 544 patients waiting.

Dr Barbara Hakin, chief operating officer, NHS England, said: “The NHS does face a challenge on the 18-week standard but staff are working incredibly hard to ensure patients are seen quickly.

“During February, around 270,000 patients were admitted for treatment within the standard, and around 400 waited longer than we would have liked. This shows we are treating more patients than ever, but we do need to treat patients in order of clinical priority.  This means treating those who have waited the longest, which may mean that we miss the standard. 

“We are determined to redouble our efforts so that we do meet the standard and 90 per cent of patients are treated within 18 weeks. But this may take several months as it is imperative we focus on those who have waited longest.”