Hidden Waiting Lists Scrapped

Patients will be removed from “hidden” waiting lists and given target times for treatment within weeks, under changes the SNP is due to announce today.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Health Secretary, is expected to fast-track plans to scrap the controversial system where people who need NHS attention can, in some circumstances, lose their waiting time guarantee.

Doctors’ leaders were among those yesterday who welcomed the scrapping of the Availability Status Code (ASC) system.

If the reforms are introduced as currently proposed, people queuing for highly specialised or low-priority procedures will be given the same maximum waiting time as everyone else.

Patients who cannot accept reasonable appointment offers because of personal circumstances or medical problems will not be exempt either, but the period they were unavailable will be subtracted from their official waiting time.

Patients who fail to turn up for appointments without prior warning face having their waiting time clock reset to zero, unless their case is clearly urgent.

A spokeswoman for the BMA in Scotland said there was anecdotal evidence the system had been used as an administrative loophole to hide patients who could not be treated within waiting times guarantees.

However, she added: “It should be recognised that for some cases it will not be possible to meet waiting times guarantees and mechanisms must be created for dealing with such cases to ensure these patients do not lose out on timely treatment.”

She urged the new executive to work with doctors and NHS managers to develop targets that benefit patients rather than politicians.

Julia Clarke, Scottish spokeswoman with consumer group Which?, said it was important the new system was transparent and understood by the public.

She said: “Patients have not always understood how the current system works and I think many patients have thought they were on a waiting list and were not officially being counted.”

At the end of last year more than 30,000 people queuing for treatment had been given an ASC code.

Needing a highly specialised procedure, being too sick for surgery or being unable to accept appointments because of personal circumstances are among reasons people were removed from the official NHS queue.

The process has faced constant criticism, with consumer groups warning that patients may not know when Scottish Executive pledges do not apply to them.

A radical new stopwatch system where the clock measuring how long people have waited for treatment can be stopped and restarted, was due to be brought in by the previous administration by 2008.

The SNP is expected to advance the roll-out of an arrangement along these lines in the next weeks and months.

An SNP source said: “The whole process is going to be brought forward. We are of the opinion that ASCs provide a misleading picture of how long patients have to wait. “

It is understood that not all health boards are ready to make changes, and the new arrangements will be phased in. Finer details of how the SNP will manage the shake-up are yet to emerge.

The move follows a major survey by the Scottish Consumer Council which found the NHS is failing to give people the correct advice when they ring or e-mail.

The SNP source said on both fronts: “NHS boards have got to be a bit more patient-centred.”