THE number of NHS patients in Scotland waiting more than a month for potentially life-saving tests has soared dramatically in the past year.
Figures reveal the number of patients on the waiting list for vital diagnostic tests that can pick up serious diseases including cancer has soared by 15 per cent in a year, from 41,340 to 47,248.
The number waiting more than four weeks has risen from 4,785 to 6,252.
There is also huge discrepancy across the country. In some areas nobody is waiting longer than four weeks, whilst thousands are in others.
Diagnostic tests include scans and investigations which are used by medics to pick up a range of diseases.
The figures are revealed in a waiting-times report by ISD Scotland which blames “ongoing demand and capacity” in several areas of the country.
It points the finger at specific delays in radiology, which takes images of the body to diagnose problems using CT scans and ultrasounds.
The report blames these specialities for the “marked increase” in the number of patients waiting more than a month for their test.
It states: “With NHS boards working to local targets that patients will wait no more than four weeks, there has been an increase in the number of patients waiting over four weeks.
“There are differences in performance between waits for diagnostic tests and between NHS boards.”
Between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of patients waiting more than four weeks for radiology tests has more than doubled, from 1,735 to 4,215.
The worst hit specialities are CT and MRI scans, barium studies and ultrasounds, which can pick up cancer and other abnormalities of the brain, spine, gut and internal organs.
NHS boards hit by delays include Fife, Lanarkshire and Forth Valley, which have experienced problems with radiology resources, staff shortages and equipment.
The thousands waiting in these health boards are in sharp contrast to areas such as Glasgow and Dumfries and Galloway, where virtually nobody is waiting for more than four weeks.
The delays in radiology are in stark contrast to waiting time performance in other types of diagnostic test, including endoscopies of the bowel and stomach, which have improved over the past 12 months.
The Scottish Government has a six-week maximum waiting time standard for diagnostic tests but health boards have also been issued with local targets of four weeks.
Yesterday critics warned that forcing rising numbers of patients to wait more than a month for such tests was “totally unacceptable”.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “There has been a considerable slip in performance and service here, and the Scottish Government must explain why and what it is going to do about it.
“These are tests for potentially fatal and life-changing illnesses.”
Health boards said they were working to improve waiting times.
Heather Knox, director of acute services at NHS Fife, which had the most patients waiting over a month, said it had experienced a 23 per cent increase in patients over the past three years.
She added: “We continue to be able to accommodate urgent patients within two weeks.
“However, we recognise these additional referrals have created some challenges for us to achieve the waiting times targets.
“We continue to take steps to address these challenges, such as holding weekend clinics. We are in the process of recruiting more staff.”
The figures are the latest waiting times crisis to hit the NHS in a matter of weeks.
Last month, it emerged bed blocking by elderly patients waiting for a care home place or assessment had increased by 165 per cent.
The figures, released yesterday, revealed more than 11,000 people waiting more than 12 weeks for a new hospital appointment – up from 5,678 at the end of December 2012 and 5,579 at the end of 2011.
Waiting times in accident and emergency departments, while better than during last winter’s crisis, are still among the worst recorded with 93.5 per cent of patients dealt with within four hours.
Some health boards are still not treating patients within 12 weeks of doctors agreeing a care plan, despite this guarantee being enshrined in law.
A total of 1,371 Scots waited more than 12 weeks for hospital treatment.
Last night, a Scottish Government spokesman said that 96.2 per cent of patients were seen within its guaranteed time frame of six weeks.
He added: “We are not complacent in this area and recognise that a few boards are experiencing some difficulty and we are working to support them to ensure that patients get swift access to these treatments.
“Increasingly, due to the success of our screening programmes, there have been more demands on diagnostic tests such as CT or MRI and we are now seeing more patients sooner.
“The number of patients waiting more than six weeks in December 2012 was 2,434, however this figure was 1,787 in December 2013.”