Hospitals doubt Blair's NHS plan

Hospitals in the region last night warned that prime minister Tony Blair's plans for round-the-clock surgery to cut waiting lists would be unworkable in Norfolk and Suffolk because health trusts are saddled with multi-million pound deficits.

Hospitals in the region last night warned that prime minister Tony Blair's plans for round-the-clock surgery to cut waiting lists would be unworkable in Norfolk and Suffolk because health trusts are saddled with multi-million pound deficits.

The warning came after Mr Blair pledged to cut hospital waiting times to a maximum of 18 weeks from GP referral to treatment.

All health trusts must meet that target by December 2008, but Mr Blair indicated that he wanted to cut waiting times by speeding up surgery at major hospitals with out-of-hours operations.

However, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the James Paget University Hospital at Gorleston warned there would be cost implications to such a plan.

The multi-million pound debts facing the two primary care trusts also raise questions about how the plan would be financed.

Norfolk Primary Care Trust has a deficit nearing £50m and the Great Yarmouth and Waveney PCT is about £10m in the red.

Most Read

The prime minister accompanied health secretary Patricia Hewitt on a tour of King's College Hospital in south east London yesterday to highlight efforts towards meeting the government's target.

He said: “Of course there are always ways you can make the changes better, but if you imagine getting to this 18-week maximum - that is for the whole process from the time you see your GP and are diagnosed right through to the operation - that will be a real transformation within the health service.”

However, Andrew Stronach from the N&N said: “While on the face of it Tony Blair's comments look a sensible argument, they do not look quite so sensible when Norfolk Primary Care Trust is £50m in deficit.

“If you do more activity and extended hours that needs to be commissioned and paid for and it is not clear whether that is possible at the moment.”

Mr Stronach said 40pc of N&N patients are already being seen with the 18-week time limit.

JPH finance director Julie Cave said: “We always look at maximising throughput in our theatres but it is an expensive resource and depends on whether the PCT, which commissions the activity, can afford to pay for it.”

One surgeon has already cut JPH waiting lists by over-lapping operations in two theatres. Consultant orthopaedic surgeon John Petri introduced a system where one patient was prepared for theatre while he operated on another.

Some PCTs have actually ordered hospitals such as the N&N to peg waiting times at current levels as part of a plan to cut deficits.

Norfolk PCT director of finance David Stonehouse said: “The PCT is looking to commission the required level of activity to deliver progress on the 18 week maximum waiting time targets. At the same time, it is reviewing all areas of expenditure to ensure it can deliver this within its overall budget.”

North Norfolk MP and Liberal Democrat shadow health secretary Norman Lamb said: “It makes sense to maximise the use of theatre space to treat patients as quickly as possible.

“But the reality is that in many parts of the country PCTs deep in deficit are slowing down patient referrals to hospital; extending waiting times rather than reducing them.”