PATIENTS in Scotland will not wait longer than 18 weeks for treatment after being referred by their GP, pledged the health secretary.
Nicola Sturgeon said figures showed that 85 per cent of patients were already being seen within this target as she vowed that this would cover all patients by December.
But the battle to bring down waiting times still lags behind the NHS in England, where the 18-week target was introduced much earlier and where almost 90 per cent of patients are treated within that time.
The figures published yesterday show wide variation between boards in their efforts to meet the 18-week target, while some have warned that hospitals are struggling with limited resources to meet targets.
It also emerged that the statistics cover only 68 per cent of the NHS, as some hospitals still do not have the right IT systems in place to measure performance against the 18-week target.
Previously, there have been warnings that waiting time targets can skew priorities in the NHS, with people being treated more quickly to meet the time limit rather than based on their level of need.
But Ms Sturgeon yesterday defended the targets during a visit to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, saying patients deserved to be treated as quickly as possible.
The new figures, published by Information Services Division Scotland, showed that while 85 per cent of all patients were seen within 18 weeks, this varied between boards.
In March, 78.6 per cent of Ayrshire and Arran patients and 80 per cent of those in Greater Glasgow and Clyde were treated within 18 weeks of being referred. This compared to highs of 98.5 per cent in Shetland and 98.7 per cent in Orkney.
And while waiting times in Scotland have decreased significantly in recent years, figures from England suggest performance south of the Border has improved more.
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The most recent figures from England showed that almost 90 per cent of patients needing to be admitted for treatment were seen within 18 weeks.
The Scottish Government first announced the 18-week aim in 2007, when English hospitals were already moving towards the target.
However, recent figures also revealed the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks in England had risen by 26 per cent compared to last year.
The Scottish Government said comparisons between the countries were not possible due to the different ways figures were collected.
Fears about differences between the Scottish and English health systems were raised again earlier this week when doctors warned that patients in Scotland were missing out on an innovative heart treatment which was widely available in England.
Ms Sturgeon said: "We are hitting all of our waiting-time targets which is really good news for patients, but we have got a new target to be implemented by December this year where all patients should be seen within a maximum 18 weeks from being referred by their GP to getting treatment.
"We are making good progress and 85 per cent of patients are being seen within that standard. There is work still to do to meet it and I expect it to be done."
Ms Sturgeon insisted boards did have the money to pay for the waiting-time reductions.
"All of our waiting times standards have been fully resourced," she said. "Additional money has been set aside over the past couple of years to allow boards to prepare for this.
"We recognise that speed of treatment is not the only aspect of quality. People want to be treated to the highest quality in clean, safe hospitals. But it remains the case that the time spent waiting for treatment is a time of anxiety for patients and we will continue our work to reduce that as much as possible."Ms Sturgeon said they had not set any further targets to reduce the 18-week wait at present.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Alison McInnes MSP said: "The SNP need to look at why Scotland is still lagging behind the UK in terms of waiting times and make sure that they are putting measures in place to catch up."
Labour's health spokesman, Dr Richard Simpson, said: "In government, Labour set a waiting-times target of 18 weeks which compared to a target of 18 months under the Conservatives. This progress allowed both Labour and the SNP to commit to an 18-week whole journey waiting time, but that momentum will need to be maintained under increasingly difficult circumstances due to the SNP's real-term cut to the health budget."
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association Scotland said they supported waiting-time targets where they were clinically appropriate.
"It's important to try to drive down the waits, but there's a risk that you can skew priorities by focusing entirely on those conditions that have a target, rather than those that don't," she said.