A NEW law that gives patients a legal guarantee of prompt treatment has been branded “toothless” – after it emerged more than 150 people have already waited beyond the time limit for operations.
The policy should see patients treated within three months of a course of action being agreed with their consultant and was billed as a major initiative intended to offer peace of mind and security to thousands of potentially desperately ill patients when it was launched in October.
But the fact it has failed at the first hurdle – with a huge batch of patients already crashing over the vital 12-week treatment threshold – has resulted in the landmark health law being branded “meaningless” and nothing more than a PR stunt.
The scheme was previously widely criticised when we exclusively revealed patients could be sent abroad for treatment by doctors desperate to fix treatment solutions within the prescribed framework.
Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw today dismissed NHS Lothian’s defence they were not “complacent” to the fears of patients and instead accused them of treating patients with “absolute contempt”. He said: “Had the health board been honest and up-front from the start, help could have arrived sooner, and these patients could well have been treated on time.”
The Scottish Government’s Treatment Time Guarantee, which came into force three months ago as part of its flagship Patients Rights Act, states that patients must be treated within 12 weeks of agreeing a course of action with their consultant.
But the Evening News can reveal that last month, when the first patients who the law applied to saw their 12 weeks expire, NHS Lothian had failed to honour the legal right in 44 cases.
Another 127 are expected to follow during this month, with hundreds of others in coming months.
But despite NHS Lothian being in breach of the law, it will only have to offer affected patients the next available appointment and provide information including how to complain, leaving little recourse for action.
Labour MSP and shadow health secretary Jackie Baillie said the “empty” guarantee was failing patients.
She said: “All people want is to be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible and honesty about what they can expect. For so many people to have seen the target breached already suggests the law is meaningless and doesn’t bear any relevance to the reality on the ground.
“It strikes me that this law is pretty toothless and that this legislation isn’t working for people.”
The health board’s chief executive, Tim Davison, who just three months ago claimed he would “move heaven and earth” to ensure there were no breaches and emphasised that NHS Lothian could not “plan to break the law”, said the proportion of patients who had not seen their right met was “vanishingly tiny”.
The law states that if health boards are unable to treat patients themselves within 12 weeks, they should take reasonable steps to find them appointments with other Scottish health boards, the NHS in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, the private sector or in hospitals in Europe.
It is understood that a low number of NHS Lothian patients have been offered appointments in England. A small number have been considered for operations abroad, but doctors decided foreign treatment was “not clinically appropriate” in those cases.
Dr Jean Turner, a former GP and director of the Scotland Patients Association, called on the health board to explain why alternative arrangements had not been made more often. “If the Government had really known how difficult it would be for health boards to meet the 12 weeks I think there would have been a lot more discussion,” she said.
It is understood patients who see their rights breached cannot sue for compensation, and may only seek a judicial review if they are not satisfied having gone through the NHS complaints procedure. NHS Lothian will not face a financial penalty.
Four of the 44 patients who waited beyond the time guarantee in December are yet to receive appointments, 14 have appointments and 26 have been treated. Not all procedures are covered by the Treatment Time Guarantee.
Dr David Farquharson, NHS Lothian’s medical director, said: “Unfortunately a small number of patients breached the new 12-week guarantee in December and we would apologise to anyone who has had to wait too long.”
Waiting lists given the chop
NHS Lothian’s waiting lists have continued to drop since the systematic fiddling of figures was uncovered.
In April last year, around 2000 inpatients and 5000 outpatients were waiting more than 12 weeks for treatment, but by last month the number of inpatients waiting too long had been slashed by three-quarters while the outpatient figure had halved.
Dr David Farquharson, NHS Lothian’s medical director, said: “We are currently working through the largest waiting times reduction ever undertaken by an NHS board in Scotland and continue to make significant progress in reducing our waiting time figures. Any offer of treatment is made in the best interests of the patient and takes into account their individual clinical needs.
“Adding to this, we know that patients prefer to be treated locally and feedback from local management teams shows this to be the case.”