Diagnostic test waiting times

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

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

Diagnostic waiting times are strongly linked to treatment waiting times as, in order to access timely and appropriate treatment, you must first have diagnostic tests. Recognising the importance of this link, the Department of Health introduced a six week diagnostic wait as a target from March 2008 to ensure people would not be waiting longer than six weeks following referral from a GP. It was planned that this target would support achievement of the longer 18-week referral to treatment target.

The proportion of diagnostic tests where patients wait longer than six weeks or 13 weeks fell dramatically between January and March 2008. Since then the proportion waiting longer than these targets has been fairly steady, and always less than 5%. In June 2010, central performance management of targets was relaxed and we can see an increase in waits over six weeks recorded around May 2011. This target was changed further in 2012/13, with the expectation that fewer than 1% of patients should wait six weeks or longer for a diagnostic test. We see the impact of this, as from February 2012 to November 2013 the proportion stayed around 1%. However, since then, this target has not been met and in a number of months the figure has remained around 2% . In January 2017, 1.7% of tests took place after more than 6 weeks.

Updated March 2017.

How long do people wait on average for diagnostic tests?

In addition to looking at the numbers of people waiting a long time (over the six or 13 week thresholds), it is also possible to look at the typical waiting time and how that is changing. In 2006, the median waiting time fluctuated around five weeks for diagnostic tests, but fell to around two weeks in January 2008, just before the national target was introduced in March 2008. The lowest median wait of around 1.5 weeks, was seen in January 2009. Since then, the median wait has been increasing, to a maximum 2.5 weeks in December of each year from 2013 to 2016. In general there is a peak in December every year- this is due to people not being able to schedule or attend appointments over the Christmas holidays.

Updated March 2017.

How many people are waiting for diagnostic tests?

As seen in previous charts, the introduction of national targets had a big impact on the amount of time patients spent on a waiting list. This can also be seen in terms of the total number of people waiting, which fell to a low of almost 400,000 in December 2008. Since then, the list has been steadily increasing and in January 2017 was over 840,000, surpassing the highs seen in 2006. This should be seen in the context of rapidly increasing numbers of diagnostic tests undertaken each month: 816,000 in January 2006 and 1.8m in January 2017.

Updated March 2017.

About this data

These statistics measure waiting times for each of the key 15 diagnostic tests for patients. Once there has been a decision that someone needs a diagnostic test or procedure and the request has been made, 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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