12:20pm Wednesday 18th September 2013
By Andy Rutherford - Health correspondent
THE number of Gwent patients waiting more than 36 weeks for NHS treatment in Wales rose above the 1,600 mark at the end of July, as the worrying upward trend in long waits continued.
By July 31, according to the latest figures from the Welsh Government, 1,628 patients living in Gwent had been waiting longer than 36 weeks, a timescale that under its own targets should not be breached.
Of that overall figure, 1,165 patients were waiting for treatment in a Gwent hospital, with the remaining 463 on waiting lists in other health boards, such as Cardiff & Vale, and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg.
July was the fourth successive month in which the numbers of patients waiting more than 36 weeks rose in Gwent, mirroring the situation across Wales.
Referral to treatment (RTT) times – the period a patient waits from referral by their GP to the beginning of definitive treatment – has become a monthly political football, due to successive increases in waits and an inability in the NHS in Wales to bring them under control.
It is several years since the ideal of a maximum 26-week waiting time for 95 per cent of patients under the RTT system was envisaged, and tens of millions of pounds were ploughed into waiting list initiative work, and into buying up surgery slots in private hospitals in Wales and England, to create more capacity to treat patients from Wales.
Gradually, however, as the harsh economic reality of squeezed NHS budgets has taken hold, health boards have fought a losing battle to contain treatment waiting times.
Although some health boards, particularly Aneurin Bevan, achieved a position of no patients waiting longer than 36 weeks – the position in Gwent hospitals for much of 2011/12 – it came at the cost of a budget overspend of several millions of pounds.
That position was not maintained during 2012/13 and long waits rose gradually.
If hopes of containing waiting times inside 36 weeks appears a distant dream currently, the idea of a maximum 26-week wait for 95 per cent of patients is the stuff of fantasy.
Currently, almost 10 per cent of patients on a treatment waiting list in Wales have waited longer than 26 weeks (just over nine per cent in Gwent).
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