NHS waiting times 'rise amid cuts'
NHS waiting times are rising as financial strain on the healthcare system begins to show, according to a report.
New figures from health charity The King's Fund reveal that NHS waiting times are at their highest level for three years, with nearly 15% of hospital inpatients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment in February 2011.
The report highlights a steady increase in waiting times for hospital treatment since the Government relaxed the 18-week target in June 2010, said the charity.
Professor John Appleby, chief economist at The King's Fund, said: "With hospital waiting times rising, the NHS faces a considerable challenge in maintaining performance as the financial squeeze begins to bite."
He warned that hospitals no longer have a target for waiting times in place but instead "a vague commitment".
"The trouble is it's hard to see what the mechanisms are to keep that target low. I think the issue is how far they will continue to rise and at what point does the public start to notice," he added.
The figures show waiting times in accident and emergency departments are also steadily climbing with the proportion of patients waiting more than four hours increasing.
Although this percentage tends to be larger in the third quarter of each year, the latest peak is the highest since 2004/5.
The King's Fund said a panel of 26 NHS finance directors were questioned at a time of tightening budgets within the NHS to find £20 billion in productivity improvements by 2015.
Researchers also analysed data published by the Department of Health.