Tories take SNP lead on abandoning health targets - Alex Cole-Hamilton

Michael Matheson MSP (then Net Zero and Energy Secretary) now Health SecretaryMichael Matheson MSP (then Net Zero and Energy Secretary) now Health Secretary
Michael Matheson MSP (then Net Zero and Energy Secretary) now Health Secretary
In 2017 the SNP government commissioned one of the most respected people in medicine to conduct a review of the use of targets in the Scottish NHS.

Former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns was asked by ministers to review whether targets, particularly on waiting times, were just getting in the way and couldn’t we just get rid of them?

This came in large part as a result of a run of disastrous news stories for the SNP who’d presided over some of the worst hospital waits in history. Sir Harry duly undertook his review but to the government’s dismay, far from suggesting they dispense with the targets, he restated their importance and pointed to other metrics, like levels of childhood trauma that we weren’t measuring but should be.

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Early this week, the UK government announced something similar - the intention to scrap all targets around cancer care, bar three. The argument went that these targets were getting in the way and that slimming down what we were measuring would lead to faster treatment.

But when you dig down into what all this means you discover that the axed targets include being seen by a consultant within two weeks. It’s no wonder the charity Radiotherapy UK have said they are “deeply worried” by the plans.

Sound familiar? In reality, I suspect that UK ministers saw repeatedly missed targets as an albatross around their necks that they could do without in much the same way the SNP did in 2017.

Scrapping the measurement of a problem does not make that problem go away. Anxious patients waiting too long for care will still experience worse outcomes, it will just be harder for news outlets and the public to quantify the scale of that problem. It’s why the UK government are following the SNP in flirting with the idea of scrapping targets altogether.

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Ask anyone, anywhere in the country what the most important issue controlled by government is to them and more often than not they will tell you it is health. Ultimately a government’s popularity in the country is linked to their performance in the delivery of the health service. So, with 1 in 7 Scots still waiting for treatment of some kind, and waiting far beyond the 12 week treatment guarantee, delivery in health is once again a millstone adding to the woes of a faltering governing party in Scotland.

And there is fresh evidence that Scottish health bosses may have been trying to help out their ministerial paymasters by cooking the books on the numbers of those waiting for care.

Last month, The Times revealed that more than 6000 people were removed from waiting lists during Covid. Surgeons described how NHS boards made the decision without consulting them and indicated that “waiting lists were being arbitrarily manipulated by management.”

Those who were originally on the waiting lists and then removed had to re-join lists, with the clock for their waits starting all over again. When I wrote to the Health Secretary in July to ask him to explain this, he singularly failed to address these concerns and has brushed off similar press inquiries.

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Ministers can pretend the crisis in our NHS isn’t happening as much as they like, they can even find inventive ways to hide that reality in how we measure things in the health service, but patients will always find them out.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western Constituency and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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