NHS 'unlikely' to eliminate year-long waits for first appointments by end of year as hoped

A target to eliminate the number of people waiting more than a year for their first outpatient appointment was extended by a year after it was missed in 2022. Credit: PA Images

The NHS is "unlikely" to hit its target to eliminate the number of people waiting more than a year for their first appointment by the end of 2023, the Welsh Health Minister has admitted.

Outpatients are people who have an appointment in a hospital or clinic but do not need to stay overnight, and can be for treatment, diagnosis or a procedure.

The Welsh Government extended its original target by a year after it was missed at the end of 2022.

But the number of waits for a first appointment was still increasing in August this year, with around 52,600 patient pathways added to the list.

The number of patient pathways is not the same as the number of individual patients, because some people have multiple open pathways.

On Wednesday the Health Minister told a group of cross-party Senedd members that "significant improvements have been made".

Health Minister Eluned Morgan was questioned by the Senedd's health and social care committee on Wednesday.

During a scrutiny session with the Senedd's health and social care committee, Eluned Morgan said: "What we have seen is a reduction of almost 50% by the end of August 2023, compared to August 2022.

"So it's not an insignificant number, but it's unlikely that we're going to reach that target by the end of 2023."

A target to eliminate the number of people waiting longer than two years to start treatment in most specialities by March 2023 has also been extended by a year after it was missed.

There were still around 27,000 patient pathways waiting more than two years for treatment in August.

Ms Morgan told the committee there have been "consistent improvements" in this area.

"It's now 61% lower than when we first set out the targets. I think it's probably worth emphasising that for those waiting for two years, 90% of them were waiting in the seven areas that we thought that we would be challenged in already.

"That's general surgery, ear, nose and throat, urology, ophthalmology, gynaecology, oral surgery and trauma and orthopaedics. We knew we would be challenged in those seven specific areas."

August saw the highest number of patient pathways waiting to start treatment in Wales on record. Credit: PA Images

She added that the Welsh Government has set out "additional milestones to keep up the pace".

"We're expecting 97% of those open pathways to be waiting less than two years by December 2023 and 99% of those waiting less than two years by March 2024. Those are not insignificant numbers."

In August, 8,468 patient pathways were waiting more than two years for trauma and orthopaedic treatments, 3,519 for urology treatments and 3,473 for general surgery.

The overall waiting list increased from around 757,400 to just under 760,300 - the sixth consecutive increase and the highest figure on record - equating to around 593,000 individual patients.

Ms Morgan said the Welsh Government is putting significant investment and support in place to reduce waiting lists, including the creation of surgical hubs.

But she was challenged by the committee chair and Welsh Conservative spokesperson for health board Russell George MS, who questioned "why the performance in reducing waiting times has worsened despite significant focus placed on it".

In response, she said: "Partly because actually the number of people coming on the waiting lists have increased massively.

"So if you look at the past 12 months, we've seen a 14% increase on the numbers coming in, compared to to the 12 months before that. I don't think any of us envisaged a 14% increase.

"Whilst our waiting lists are going up, and they have gone up by 1.9% in Wales over the past year, they've gone up by 10.7% in England, in the past year.

"So that overall number is still going up, but it's not going up as fast as it is in England."

Figures for the NHS in England show 7.75 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of August, up from 7.68 million in July.

This is the highest number since records began in August 2007.

The UK Government said ongoing strikes by doctors are having a significant impact on the ability to bring down waits.

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