Figures published today by the health watchdog, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), show 33% of patients are waiting more than four hours to be seen in Accident and Emergency.
The CQC's survey, conducted every four years, shows the number of patients waiting more than four hours is steadily increasing, up from 23% in 2004 and 27% in 2008. The proportion of patients who had to wait more than half an hour in A&E had also increased to 33%, up from 24% in 2004 and 29% in 2008.
The study, conducted between January and March this year, looked at 46,000 patients. This year 59% of people said that they were not told how long their wait in A&E was likely to last, up from 56% in both 2004 and 2008. The CQC noted that patient transfers from ambulance to A&E also needed to improve with 24% of patients having to wait more than 15 minutes before being transferred to A&E and, of those, nearly a fifth having to wait more than an hour. The CQC did note improvements in other areas such as patients' perception of the amount of privacy they were offered when discussing their conditions with receptionists in A&E.
The chief executive of the CQC, David Behan, commented: "The important issue is that people who need to be treated urgently do not have to wait. It is disappointing therefore that people have said they have to wait longer to be treated than four years ago. People should be seen, diagnosed, treated and admitted or discharged as quickly as possible and this is an issue that trusts need to tackle urgently."
Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS service providers, said that, whilst it was important to acknowledge improvements in A&E, ‘there are a number of issues with these results that are a cause for concern, and highlight the growing pressures that our urgent and emergency services are facing….We know we need to change the way we deliver services to take pressure off our hospitals and improve access to urgent care out of hospital to make sure people get the right care when they need it.’
Mr Farrar continued: "These results reinforce just how essential it is for all parts of the system to work together to deliver seamless care for patients. For example, delays in handing over patients at emergency departments, causing extended waits for treatment, are expensive and inefficient for the NHS, and mean people lack confidence in getting the right care in the right place when they need it."
The Health Minister, Dan Poulter, quoted in The Guardian, highlighted the Government's changing approach to the measurement of NHS performance: "Rightly, the NHS has moved away from the narrow focus on the four-hour waiting standard which sometimes forced A&E staff to make a broken toe as much of a priority as a patient with potentially life-threatening chest pains. Meeting targets and ticking boxes do not ensure good patient care, and we are putting doctors and nurses in charge of making clinical decisions to ensure that the most sick patients in A&E are the highest priority."
Katherine Murphy, the chief executive of the Patients Association, commented that delays in ambulances and in A&E were worrying. "With rising admissions and shrinking budgets, urgent action is needed by the Government to prevent A&E departments becoming bottlenecks."