THE number of patients waiting too long for hospital treatment in the Lothians reached at least 7000 in the wake of the waiting lists scandal, it has been revealed.
The figure continued to rise for months after the introduction of almost £5 million of emergency measures intended to cut the backlog.
Health chiefs have now admitted that their aim to get the problem under control by June will not be achieved.
The first hints of the number of people in the Lothians who were missing the 18-week target from GP referral to treatment came after an investigation discovered staff at the health board had been wrongly suspending patients from the lists in order to hit government targets.
The wrongful suspensions were halted, but this resulted in the true size of the backlog at NHS Lothian being revealed. By December, a total of 4989 patients had been waiting longer than the target time – 3497 outpatients and 1492 inpatients.
The latest figures show that by the end of March, 6722 patients were waiting longer than 18 weeks for surgery – 4042 outpatients and 2680 inpatients.
However, NHS Lothian admitted that the figures had been even higher, peaking in January, when the number of inpatients waiting too long for surgery was up to almost 4000. It was not able to provide figures for the number of outpatients exceeding the target in January, so the exact total for that month is not yet known.
Emergency measures brought in to cut the backlog after the practices were discovered in October included employing extra surgeons, reopening defunct operating theatres and sending some patients for surgery in the private sector.
NHS Lothian said the number of breaches of targets had continued to climb for several months after that because it had taken time for the changes to feed through into the figures.
Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack said: “I think these are astonishing figures given that an extra £5m has been pumped into NHS Lothian to help cut the waiting list, which tells me either that the money allocated isn’t enough or that in the aftermath of the waiting times scandal NHS Lothian is struggling to address waiting times targets.
“I think there is immense pressure on NHS Lothian in terms of capacity. We know that the recent report highlighted the issue of the tight financial environment which relates to the fact that we’ve got a growing population and NHS Lothian gets less money than other NHS boards.”
Responding to the latest figures, Sandra Mair, deputy chief operating officer for NHS Lothian said: “Strict guidance was put in place when this pattern was discovered last year. As a result, our suspension rate has dropped significantly, but the knock-on effect is that in the short term more patients are waiting longer.
“We have apologised to these patients and assured them they will get the best care as soon as they possibly can.
“This is a significant issue for NHS Lothian and it has been given a very high priority. However, it must be recognised that it will not be resolved overnight.”
The Scottish Government said it was confident the figure would continue to drop. A spokeswoman said: “NHS Lothian is taking every action possible to ensure that all affected patients are given an appointment and treated as swiftly as possible. We expect to see a steady decline in these numbers over the coming months.”
WHAT IS THE 18-WEEK GUARANTEE?
THE 18-week referral-to-treatment waiting time guarantee, which was introduced in December, is one of the flagship targets laid down for the NHS by the Scottish Government.
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced in February 2008 that from December 2011, 18 weeks would be the maximum waiting time from GP referral to the start of treatment for non-urgent patients. She outlined a three-year plan to help achieve the target, with the aim that health boards would work gradually towards it.
It was late last year as this deadline loomed that NHS Lothian staff were deliberately suspending thousands of patients from the waiting list by marking them as unavailable – sometimes without the patient’s knowledge – to make sure they didn’t appear on progress reports submitted to the Scottish Government.
Once it was uncovered and halted, however, the true picture was revealed, with around 5000 patients breaching the 18-week guarantee.
Find out more about the guarantee at its dedicated website www.18weeks.scot.nhs.uk.