Diagnostic tests and scans must be improved if NHS trusts are to meet next year's target of ensuring all patients are treated within 18 weeks of referral, a new report warns.
A review of diagnostic services by the Healthcare Commission finds that although waiting times for CT and MRI scans in particular are improving, many trusts are still failing to deliver the fast results required to meet the 2007 waiting time target.
"Some patients are still waiting too long for diagnosis, delaying their treatment, and too many internal examinations fail to achieve a result, slowing down diagnosis and causing distress to patients," said the watchdog's chief executive, Anna Walker.
"It is absolutely essential that hospitals provide good diagnostic services. They are vital to A&E departments, determining the type and speed of care patients receive, often in emergency situations."
Today's review of services at 153 acute hospital trusts across England finds that typical waits for CT scans have fallen from 49 to 36 days since 2001, despite a 77 per cent increase in demand. Waiting times for MRI scans have been cut from 147 to 95 days.
But it notes that while the top 25 trusts are already meeting the target for next March of providing scans within 13 weeks, patients in 67 trusts have to wait an average 26 weeks.
Waits for endoscopies, which are used to screen for bowel problems, vary from two weeks to more than a year depending on where a patient is being treated. The commission also warns that too few of these procedures are successful in finding the cause.
Meanwhile, pathology tests, which determine whether someone's chest pains are a heart attack and are therefore crucial to their treatment, are also taking more than two hours in a minority of trusts.
The health watchdog today warns that these delays are likely to prevent many trusts meeting the 18-week target set by the government for next September.
However, health minister Caroline Flint expressed confidence that the target would be met, and said improving diagnostics was a key priority.
Since 1997, an extra £200 million had been invested in scanning equipment and an extra 1,600 radiographers had been recruited, she said. In addition, the independent sector was providing 1.5 million extra procedures a year for the NHS.
"There are areas with greater challenges and to help the NHS identify where further improvements need to be made, we have already for the first time started publishing monthly waiting times for diagnostic procedures across every trust," she added.
"This transparency is unprecedented in the history of the NHS and is a vital step in delivering the new 18-week maximum wait from GP to treatment by the end of 2008."