PATIENTS waiting for routine operations and day case procedures must be given a “realistic timeline” for their treatment, the Health Secretary has said.

Jeane Freeman said revised template letters and national guidance would be issued to health boards by the end of this week to help them provide more “clarity” to patients.

Under the Scottish Government's Treatment Time Guarantee, introduced in 2012, no patient should wait longer than 12 weeks for non-emergency surgeries and outpatient treatments such as hip replacements or cataract removal.

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However, compliance has fallen to just 69.9 per cent - the lowest since the law passed - and in a debate at Holyrood yesterday, LibDem health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton said health boards must stop sending letters to patients reiterating this 12-week figure when it only gave them "false hope".

Mr Cole-Hamilton, MSP for Edinburgh Western, said in NHS Lothian alone 34,000 people had waited longer than 12 weeks this year, while in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde it was 32,000.

He said: "There is no sanction for this, no minister has ever resigned and nobody gets a fine. It's a legally-binding guarantee in name only."

One of his own constituents, Jane Ross, had waited 36 weeks "in an excruciating state" to have her bladder removed following a referral in August 2018 by her urology consultant.

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Prior to that, he said Ms Ross had waited six months for a consultant appointment and then another year for medical tests "by which time her bladder was so inflamed it had shrunk to a fifth of its normal size".

He added: "The pain was so severe that she had to control it by not drinking at all until after 4pm in the afternoon, which allowed her to struggle through her part-time job."

Mr Cole-Hamilton said health boards "should be straight with people" from the outset, noting that his own father had paid to go private after being told he faced a 40-week wait for a knee replacement.

If others did so this "might relieve pressure" on waiting lists to the benefit of other patients, he said.

Despite the 12-week 'guarantee', patients today are actually waiting longer than they were 20 years ago.

The latest statistics show that of the 77,228 inpatient and day case procedures carried out in July, August and September of 2018, only 69.9% met the 12-week target.

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That compares to 71.6% of patients in the same quarter in 1998, when the total number of inpatient and outpatient procedures performed was actually higher - at 93,575.

The 12-week guarantee does not apply to cancer where patients are expected to begin treatment within 62 days of a urgent referral with a suspicion of cancer, and within 31 days of a decision to treat once diagnosis is confirmed.

However, bottlenecks at the diagnosis stage have also contributed to a steady deterioration in the 62-day cancer standard since 2012, with just under 83% of patients now meeting the target.

Ms Freeman said long waits were "unacceptable" and achieving the 12-week target by 2021 was a "key priority" under the Scottish Government's £850 million Waiting Times Improvement Plan.

In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, she offered an "unreserved apology" to those who had suffered delays, and agreed that patients deserved more clarity on their likely length of time to treatment.

She said: "Health boards must ensure that each and every person is given a realistic timeline from the very beginning of their journey and is kept up to date with any changes that affect that timeline."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "Letters will be sent by individual health boards to patients where the 12-weeks treatment time guarantee cannot be met, these will outline a realistic estimate of their waiting time as well as an apology for delays."

Monica Lennon MSP said: “Parliament told the Scottish Government to be honest with patients about how long they will have to wait for treatment, some 12 months ago.

“It shouldn’t take this long and more parliamentary votes, to force the SNP to take action and listen to patients and NHS staff."

Scottish Conservative chief whip Maurice Golden said: “This is just another example of the SNP failing our NHS.

“It made this pledge knowing fine well it would raise the expectations of patients who desperately needed care.

“They’ve been let down, and the SNP – which has been in sole charge of the NHS for more than a decade – is entirely responsible.”

Professor Derek Bell, president of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh, said: “The 12-week treatment time guarantee is important as it helps to identify what is going well, and where improvement is required – this of course has implications for patients.

"While some patients may welcome an apology when they aren’t treated within the guaranteed period, all patients would certainly want to see waiting times reduced across the board”.