Waiting time targets will not be met unless the NHS is given more staff and more resources, experts have said.

Their warning came as official figures showed waiting times in 
Scotland have hit a new low, with almost one-third of patients facing delays longer than the legally-binding target time for treatment.

Professor Derek Bell, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said medical staff working for Scottish health boards needed more support to have any realistic chance of matching treatment times targets.

Meanwhile, Gordon Matheson, public affairs manager in Scotland for Cancer Research UK, said staff shortages were an “ongoing and deeply concerning problem”.

They were speaking as new figures revealed the performance of the NHS against key waiting times targets has worsened. 

They showed the Scottish Government’s Treatment Time Guarantee – which promises inpatient or day case treatment within 12 weeks – was met for just over two-thirds (68.4 per cent) of patients in the first three months of the year. 

And in NHS Grampian, fewer than half (47.3%) of patients received 
treatment within 12 weeks.

While 50,348 patients across Scotland received treatment within the target time during January to March this year, there were 23,229 patients who waited more than 12 weeks.

Overall performance has slumped from the 72.9% recorded in the first three months of 2018, falling to the lowest level since the legally binding guarantee was introduced in October 2012.

Meanwhile, the proportion of patients beginning treatment within 18 weeks of a referral – another key waiting time standard – has also dropped to the worst level ever. 

The referral to treatment standard, introduced in December 2011, states 90% of patients should start receiving care within 18 weeks, but in March this year only 77.3% were seen within this time.

Only three out of 15 regional health boards did meet the 90% standard – NHS Western Isles (92.4%), NHS Orkney (90.8%) and NHS Borders (90.1%).

However NHS Grampian recorded another low, with only 61.7% of patients having started treatment within the target time in March.

In October last year, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman announced an £850 million action plan aimed at improving NHS waiting times, by funding more cataract procedures and knee and hip replacement. But Professor Bell said the Scottish Government needed to come up with an NHS workforce plan “that gives medical staff the time to innovate as well as treat, teach, and research”.
Increasing the number of places in medical school will also help address the problem in the long term, he added.

“Doctors across the Scottish NHS are working hard to deliver the quality treatment standard for patients,” he said.

“However, medical staff require more support if they are going to have a realistic chance of matching treatment times targets.”

Other figures showed an improvement in waiting times for key diagnostic tests - although one in six patients are still waiting longer than the official six week standard for these. 

At the end of March this year, 84% of those needing tests had been waiting less than six weeks, up from 78.1% at the end of December 2018.

Gordon Matheson, Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, said that “too many people are still waiting too long for tests”.

He added: “Part of the problem is staff shortages in the NHS, which is an on-going and deeply concerning problem.”

Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs said the figures were unacceptable, and said there had been a  “staggering increase in patients waiting longer than the SNP’s own supposedly legally-binding target”.

“It is truly appalling that so many patients are waiting, often in pain, for such a long time to be treated,” Mr Briggs said: “Guarantees given to patients by the SNP aren’t worth the paper they are written on.”

Labour health spokesman Monica Lennon was also critical of the Scottish Government, saying: “Thousands of patients are having to wait far too long for treatment. These waits are leaving patients in pain and causing stress for them and their families.

“The Health Secretary promised to deliver results for patients with her improvement plan in October. “The only results she has delivered so far is a worsening of performances and more patients left in pain.

“It’s clear our NHS is simply not getting the resources it needs.”
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said her goal was to significantly improve the experience of patients waiting for tests or treatment. 

“The £850 million Waiting Times Improvement Plan has been designed to deliver this. The initial investment of £27 million from the Plan was allocated to health boards earlier this year and has supported health boards to drive down long waits in a number of areas,” she added.

“This includes reducing the number of patients waiting more than 12 weeks for an inpatient or day case treatment by more than 8% and reducing the number of people waiting more than 12 weeks for an outpatient appointment by almost 16%. Today’s figures also show a reduction of almost 22% in the number of patients waiting more than six weeks for key diagnostic tests.

“In April I outlined the second phase of the Plan which will direct £70 million of investment to deliver a range of activity, including additional cataract procedures and knee and hip replacements, as well as increase the number of outpatient appointments and diagnostic procedures.”

Health boards will also be able to invest in measures, including additional staff, to ensure gains are sustainable and increased capacity at a new network of elective and diagnostic centres currently being created,” she said. 

“We have been clear that all health boards must focus on those patients waiting the longest and those patents with the greatest clinical need, including cancer patients. We are working closely with health boards to support further improvements.”