Diagnostic test waiting times

Diagnostic tests or procedures are a critical element in the care of most patients. Shorter waiting times are beneficial for patients, as they help people get quicker access to the treatments they need.

How has the proportion of people receiving diagnostic tests within 6 and 13 weeks changed?

Diagnostic test waiting times are strongly linked to referral to treatment (RTT) waiting times, as in order to access timely and appropriate treatment you may first require a diagnostic test. Recognising the importance of this link, the Department of Health introduced a six-week diagnostic wait 'milestone' in March 2008 to ensure that no one would wait longer than six weeks following referral for a diagnostic test. This target was initially introduced to support the achievement of the 18-week RTT target.

The proportion of patients with a diagnostic test wait time of longer than six weeks or 13 weeks fell dramatically between January 2007 and March 2008. Since then, the proportion of people waiting longer than these targets has been fairly steady, fluctuating at less than 3%. In June 2010, central performance management of targets was relaxed and this corresponds to the increase in waits over six weeks that were recorded around May 2011. The NHS Operating Framework 2012/13 introduced a further expectation that less than 1% of patients should wait six weeks or longer for a diagnostic test. The impact of this can be seen clearly, as from February 2012 to November 2013 the proportion stayed around 1%. However, since then the 1% target has not been met. In September 2017, 2.0% of people were waiting more than six weeks for a diagnostic test.

Updated November 2017.

How long do people wait on average for diagnostic tests?

In addition to looking at the proportion of people waiting longer than the six-week target, we can also examine changes in the median diagnostic test waiting time. Between January 2007 and January 2008 the median waiting time fell from 4.7 weeks to 2.0 weeks, in anticipation of the introduction of the national target in March 2008. The lowest median wait of 1.5 weeks occurred in January 2009. Since then, the median wait has been increasing slowly overall and has fluctuated around two weeks. In general, the median wait peaks in December every year and since 2013 it has increased to a maximum of 2.5 weeks - this is due to people not being able to schedule or attend appointments over the Christmas holidays.

Updated November 2017.

How many people are waiting for diagnostic tests?

The introduction of the six-week diagnostic test waiting time target in March 2008 also had a big impact on the total number of people on the waiting list for a diagnostic test or procedure. In December 2008, the waiting list fell to a low of just over 400,000 people. Since then, the list has been steadily increasing and in September 2017 over 898,000 people were waiting for a diagnostic test. This should be seen in the context of a rapid increase in the number of diagnostic tests being undertaken; there were 942,000 diagnostic tests in September 2007 compared to 1.8 million in September 2017, an increase of over 90%.

Updated November 2017.

About this data

These statistics measure waiting times for each of the 15 key diagnostic tests and procedures. Once a decision has been made that a patient needs a diagnostic test or procedure and the request has been sent, they are on the waiting list and the clock starts for their diagnostic test waiting time. The clock stops once they have had their diagnostic test or procedure.

For further guidance on these data, please see the NHS England website.

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