The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned that hospital trusts are being held back by a “hotchpotch” of IT and paper-based systems, making it hard for them to record and manage patients’ waiting times.
Since 2008, by law, citizens have a right to start NHS treatment within a maximum of 18 weeks from referral. However, hospitals' ability to meet this target has been called into question because of the lack of accurate data.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the PAC, said: "Public confidence in the success hospital trusts have had in meeting the 18 week waiting time target is inevitably undermined by errors in trusts’ recording of waiting time information. Trusts are struggling with a hotchpotch of IT and paper-based systems that are not easily pulled together, which makes it difficult for trusts to track and collate the information needed to manage and record patients’ waiting times."
The PAC cast doubt on the accuracy of waiting time data published by NHS England, saying that many trusts fail to record, track and collate the data properly.
In January, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that a third of the trusts it reviewed could not back up their recorded waiting times with documented evidence and a further 26 percent contained at least one error.
The spending watchdog warned that there are problems with the completeness, consistency and accuracy of patient waiting time data, saying that the published figures need to be treated with ‘a degree of caution’. To help address this, the PAC concludes that waiting time data needs to be independently audited.
Meanwhile, the committee said that the online Choose and Book appointment system, introduced from 2005, has been a “missed opportunity” to improve waiting time data, patient care and save money, and has been “underused” by patients and healthcare professionals.
The report expressed scepticism about the NHS’s ability to ensure that its replacement, e-Referrals, will be used any more fully. It says that NHS England must develop clear plans for how it will build confidence in the new system and improve its use.
The PAC recommended that allowing people to book their own appointments online could help to reduce the annual cost of £225 million incurred by patients missing their first outpatient appointment.
Hodge said: “If patients cannot be confident of accurate comparable data on the performance of hospitals they cannot exercise choice. Both GPs and their patients need reliable and comparable information about the waiting time performance of individual trusts so that they can make an informed choice about where to be treated.”
A spokesperson for NHS England said: “The NHS has made hugely significant progress for patients since the introduction of the 18-week referral-to-treatment standard. It is clearly critical that we measure progress using the most accurate data that we can. We therefore welcome this helpful report from the Public Accounts Committee, which builds on a report on the same issue from the National Audit Office."