The number of patients being treated on the National Health Service within the 18-week target has risen to nearly 50%, a year and a half ahead of schedule, according to the first official set of figures released by the Department of Health.

The results show that, of those patients commencing therapy in March this year, 48% waited no more than 18 weeks after the initial referral by their GP, up from the 35% snapshot figures indicated last December. The statistics currently only measure six out of 10 “patient journeys,” though all will be included by the beginning of next year, the DH said.

Waiting times are now measured in a way that enables every stage of the patient journey to be captured. The clock starts ticking when any referral from primary care is expected to result in a patient assessment and possible treatment before responsibility is transferred back to the referring GP. This will help boost performance across the country, so every patient will be treated within the 18-week target by December 2008, according to the DH.

"Today's figures show the NHS firmly on course to achieve the historic goal to end waiting in its 60th anniversary year,” Health Minister Andy Burnham said. "This information will reflect - for the first time - patients' real experience from GP referral through to treatment and provide an essential measure of performance to help the NHS effectively end waiting by the end of next year.”

‘A long way to go’

But Dr Jonathan Fielden, Chairman of the British Medical Association’s consultants’ committee, said that, although the figures are encouraging, “there is still a long way to go though to ensure that patients are treated as soon as clinically needed and for these improvements to be sustained.”

“Doctors were told earlier this year to ‘slow down’ and operations were cancelled so that hospitals could balance their books. The government should free clinicians, both GPs and consultants, to deliver the best value they can rather than fetter them with central targets,” he stressed, and called on the government to “develop long term solutions that allow doctors to work with all health care professionals and patients to enable the highest quality of care and patient experience to be achieved.”