HEALTH Minster Alex Neil “is confident” NHS Lothian will meet legal waiting time targets by the end of the year – as record numbers of patients are cleared from its backlog.
Two-thirds of all Scottish patients removed from the late treatment list in March were treated by NHS Lothian as it looks to cut the crippling waiting lists that have plagued the health board for several years.
Lothian is still responsible for more than half the country’s hospital patients who are not meeting the 12-week treatment time guarantee.
New measures – unveiled by NHS Lothian in a £60 million blueprint earlier this year – are making inroads to stop patients waiting too long for treatment.
The board is investing more than £18m this year to increase capacity by recruiting 80 full-time equivalent staff, including consultants, nurses and other clinical support workers in specialities such as ear, nose and throat, ophthalmology and orthopaedics.
Mr Neil said: “That additional capacity will come on stream soon and should enable a significant reduction in waiting times over the coming months, with the 12-weeks legal treatment time guarantee being delivered by the end of this year and the outpatient waiting times standard by March 2015.”
The historical backlog of more than 7000 patients has been cleared by sending people for private treatment.
One of the biggest challenges now facing the health board is to manage rising numbers of patients within the NHS, with many cases now narrowly falling short of the 12-week treatment target.
Problem departments have increased capacity with ophthalmology – once criticised for its lengthy waits for cataract surgery – slashing its waiting list by two-thirds since July last year.
Former nurse Jim Crombie, who was brought in to tackle the issue, said the masterplan was “on track” with increased staffing levels a key factor.
He said: “These additional consultants will be supported by new nursing posts in our theatres, diagnostic services and critical care areas as well as additional technical and scientific staff.
“We are on track to ensure we can safely meet the 12-week legal treatment time guarantee by the end of this year.”
Under the guarantee, patients receiving planned inpatient or day-case treatment will not wait longer than 12 weeks from the date the treatment is agreed to the start of that treatment.
NHS Lothian has similarly struggled to meet targets for outpatient appointments which Mr Neil said would be met by March 2015.
Labour Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack said the health minister had set an ambitious target.
She said: “I welcome the cabinet secretary’s acknowledgement that there are serious capacity issues at the heart of NHS Lothian and his commitment that officials continue to work closely with the health board.
“He has now said that the treatment time guarantee will be delivered by the end of this year and the challenge now will be to turn those words into reality.
“Patients in the Lothians deserve nothing less.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw branded the end-of-year claims “a bold prediction”.
He said: “The problems within NHS Lothian in relation to waiting times are complex and go back some way.
“Even the latest figures show that’s where most of the problems lie. This is yet another lasting symptom of the chaotic culture that was allowed to develop within NHS Lothian on waiting times.”