A RECORD number of Scots had to wait more than 12 hours in accident and emergency departments at the end of last year as the NHS struggled to cope with rising rates of winter illnesses.
Latest figures show that 323 patients were left waiting for more than 12 hours in A&E in December – the highest level since waiting times began to be measured in July 2007.
The statistics, published by Information Services Division Scotland (ISD), also revealed the percentage of patients treated in A&E within the four-hour target fell to its lowest ever level.
The worrying figures came as a raft of other waiting-time statistics published revealed health boards struggling to see patients within targets set by the Scottish Government.
They also follow a critical report by Audit Scotland last week which raised concerns about boards potentially manipulating waiting times so as not to breach the targets.
National standards in Scotland state that at least 98 per cent of people in A&E should be either admitted or transferred for treatment, or discharged from hospital, within four hours of arriving in the department.
Across Scotland just 90.3 per cent of patients were dealt with within the target time in December, down from 95 per cent in September and the lowest rate since data started to be collected in this way in July 2007.
In the NHS Lanarkshire area just 84.4 per cent of patients in A&E were admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours in December. The board also had the highest number of patients who waited more than 12 hours – with 117 people waiting longer than this in December.
This was followed by 78 in NHS Lothian and 65 in NHS Fife. Scotland’s biggest health board – NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde – had just nine patients who waited more than 12 hours.
In December almost 13,000 patients waited more than four hours in A&Es across Scotland.
ISD Scotland said: “The four-hour and 12-hour waits may be attributed to the significant increase in emergency admissions through A&E.”
Health secretary Alex Neil said that it had been a “busy winter” for the health service, with the “additional complexity” of dealing with the winter-vomiting bug norovirus, which closed many wards to new admissions.
“We want to have as many people as possible treated within four hours of their admission to accident and emergency and we have to recognise that while the vast majority of people are, improvements can still be made,” he said. “There is no doubt that it was a busy winter with more emergency admissions than the same time last year and with the additional complexity of an early norovirus season.”
Only four of Scotland’s 14 health boards met the 98 per cent four-hour maximum A&E waiting-time target in December – NHS Orkney, NHS Shetland, NHS Tayside and NHS Western Isles.
The figures were disclosed after the Scottish Government announced that emergency and urgent healthcare services are to be given a £50 million overhaul to try to improve treatment times and patient care.
But opposition parties yesterday voiced concerns that patients were suffering.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “This problem has been getting progressively worse, and now we know the true extent of the crisis.”
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, said:
“Patients are now paying the price for the SNP’s failure to address the underlying problems in our NHS.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Lanarkshire said: “All three hospitals within Lanarkshire experienced significant pressure over December with a 10 per cent increase in emergency admissions compared with the same time last year. Also, each of the hospitals experienced ward closures due to norovirus which impacted on the numbers of beds we had available.”
Other figures yesterday also revealed potential bottlenecks in the NHS for patients waiting for diagnostic tests and treatment. The percentage of patients waiting over six weeks for a diagnostic test, such as an MRI or CT scan, increased from 3.3 per cent in December 2011 to 5.9 per cent in December 2012.
The figures also showed that more than 1,000 patients waited over nine weeks for a test in December. A target of six weeks for diagnostic tests was introduced in March 2009.