Spot-checks have found that one in four NHS hospitals is recording false waiting list times.

The National Audit Office (NAO) examined waiting times for 650 orthopaedic units across seven different hospitals. Data was found to be properly recorded in just 43% of cases. Errors were recorded in 26% of cases, with patients waiting an average of three weeks longer than the data showed. In 31% of cases, the records were incomplete.

“Appalling behaviour by NHS managers”

Hospital managers have been accused of deliberately manipulating the figures so as to avoid being in breach of waiting list targets. These state that 90% of hospital patients who require in-hospital care and 95% of hospital patients who require outpatient treatment should wait no longer than 18 weeks.

Waiting times are recorded by hospitals themselves. This means it is possible for hospitals to ‘start the clock’ again, which happens when a patient is sent back to their GP after failing to attend an appointment. It is also possible to ‘pause the clock’ if a patient is unavailable for appointments.

The report suggests NHS administrators have been starting the clock at the wrong times and incorrectly pausing waiting times in order to meet targets. It also proposed that this practice could be routine across the NHS, where managers are keen to cover-up long waits and administrative mistakes.

The news comes as police continue their investigation in Colchester Hospital University Trust where cancer waiting times were intentionally altered.


The widespread inconsistencies suggest that figures regularly published on hospital performance may bear no relation to the reality experienced by patients. Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, described this as “scandalous.”

“NHS Trusts have been able to manipulate figures to present a picture which not only misleads the public, but means that we have no idea how many patients have been forced to wait far too long, increasing risks to their health”, she said.

Charlotte Leslie, a Conservative member of the Commons health select committee, said: “This reflects appalling behaviour by NHS managers and it really matches the perception that the public already have that too many managers care more about hitting targets than they do about patient safety.”

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