The NHS’s 18-week waiting time target could be replaced by an average wait of 8.5 weeks, which some experts argue would amount to relaxing targets, reports claim.
Hospitals are currently expected to see and treat 92% of patients within 18 weeks of being referred, but the target has not been hit since March 2016.
According to the Health Service Journal, the NHS is testing new targets at 12 hospitals, including Northampton General Hospitals Trust, where board papers said: “The target average wait is expected to be 8.5 weeks from referral although this has not yet been set. The current average at NGH is 11 weeks.”
NHS England said no final decision had been made but it had previously made clear its desire to scrap the 18-week target in a report earlier this year.
Dr Rob Findlay, director of NHS planning company Gooroo and an expert on waiting times, argued patients want to know how long they will wait, not how long the average person has been waiting so far.
He said the existing 18-week target was equivalent to an average wait of eight weeks. “This is probably a relaxation compared with the current 18-week target, and the government should take flak for lowering standards,” he said.
The Royal College of Surgeons said it was supportive of trialling new measures and “open minded” about potentially changing the target – but only if there were a clear evidence base that it would be beneficial for patients.
Final recommendations from the NHS to the government are expected in March.
NHS England believes an average wait would help to reduce waiting times for all patients compared with a simple threshold that, once breached, can mean hospitals have no incentive to see those patients more quickly than those still beneath the 18-week limit.
An NHS England spokesman said: “Testing and engagement with clinicians and patients on the best measures of short waits for routine care is ongoing, and it is completely untrue to claim that any decisions whatsoever have been made on any particular measure, including a mean wait.”