NHS waiting list scandal: ‘Whitewash’ claims emerge

THE Scottish Government is facing claims of a “whitewash” over “fiddled” NHS waiting times after it emerged some hospital staff felt pressurised into removing patients from lists to meet targets.

NHS Tayside apologised after the revelations by some of its staff yesterday in an investigation into waiting times abuses.

The investigation found that a number of workers spoke of “inappropriate behaviour including pressure” on them to class patients as “unavailable” for treatment so they would be removed from lists.

Health boards across Scotland carried out audits after NHS Lothian was caught fiddling waiting time figures last year to meet an 18-week treatment target.

No evidence was uncovered in yesterday’s reports of deliberate or systematic manipulation of figures, but NHS figures show that since last year’s scandal there has been a dramatic fall in the number of patients removed from lists over “unavailability”.

NHS Tayside said it had put controls in place to end the practices that had been identified in a “small area” of waiting time “management”. Two members of staff who had been suspended have also returned to work.

All 14 Scottish health boards had been asked to review their practices after the accusations.

NHS Lanarkshire also admitted using the “unavailability” classification incorrectly.

But it stated that wrong usage was based on “misunderstandings” rather than any “deliberate manipulation”.

Official health services figures show that the number of patients removed from lists because they were classed as “unavailable” to be treated for social reasons soared from less than 5,000 in 2008 to 19,361 in September 2011. But this more than halved to 9,537 by September 2012 after the Lothian scandal came to light.

It emerged late last year that NHS Lothian had removed patients from the 18-week waiting list when they refused to travel to England for treatment.

A critical-incident investigation was launched and two members of staff at NHS Lothian were suspended.

Health secretary Alex Neil told MSPs yesterday that the system would be changed. Previously, if a patient was not available for treatment, boards would mark them as “socially unavailable” on their records. This will be replaced by a system where patients agree with their doctor if they want their treatment to be delayed for any reason.

But Mr Neil said: “The reports provide no evidence of dishonest or widespread manipulation of waiting times across the NHS in Scotland.”

However, Labour’s Jackie Baillie said: “[Mr Neil’s] statement is a whitewash, full of assertions that are patently not true.

“The problem is wider – other health boards have retrospectively adjusted their figures.”