The comments in the Scottish Parliament followed an investigation into the practice which revealed that more than 1200 patients had been offered non-urgent surgery in Northumbria and Yorkshire.
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged that the practice had not been adopted specifically as a way of manipulating waiting list figures, but said it was “not acceptable”.
The report by NHS Lothian chief executive James Barbour found that 1234 patients had been offered elective surgery in orthopaedics, general surgery or urology in the north of England between April 2010 and October 2011.
Of those, 550 declined and said they would rather wait longer for treatment locally, and were suspended from the waiting list target figures. The average delay for those patients to receive treatment was an extra 17 days.
In all, 957 of those who were offered treatment in England have since been treated elsewhere. Others have been removed from the waiting list figures for other reasons, such as no longer needing surgery.
In response to questions asked at Holyrood by Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack and Dr Richard Simpson MSP, Ms Sturgeon said: “The investigation showed there was no intention on the part of NHS Lothian in that respect to manipulate waiting times. However I’m very clear that it was not acceptable for the board to offer treatment to patients in England at that short notice.”
She said she would be reviewing guidelines for staff and changes would be made to NHS Lothian’s TRAK waiting times computer system.
Jackie Sansbury, chief operating officer of NHS Lothian, said: “We have learned many lessons from this experience. One of those is that we should have been aware earlier that we were making offers to patients which they couldn’t accept.
“We also recognise our existing IT systems need to be updated to ensure greater clarity on how waiting times guidance is adhered to.
“However, I am pleased that this very full review has found no evidence of wilful bad behaviour on the part of staff.”
Ms Boyack said: “One of the key things that leaped out to me in the report was that elective surgery has increased 20 per cent in the Lothians since 2008. The big issue for NHS Lothian now is – will there be new beds, theatres, and staff of sufficient skill and in the right fields to make sure that patients in the NHS Lothian can be treated locally?”
Ms Sansbury responded: “We are taking a number of actions to increase capacity for surgery within NHS Lothian, such as reviewing the use of our theatres to maximise availability, including in the evenings and at weekends; reopening an out-of-use theatre at the Western General Hospital and recruiting more surgeons in the specialist areas where additional capacity is required.”
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