Two key waiting time targets are being scrapped by the NHS as changes are also made to the way A&E and cancer treatment waiting times are reported.
It follows recommendations by NHS England national medical director Sir Bruce Keogh who said a “confusing set of standards” was leading to “perverse incentives” over the 18-week target from referral by a GP to hospital treatment.
He suggested two out of three of the 18-week referral to treatment time targets be abolished, while a pilot testing the effectiveness of an eight-minute deadline for ambulances to respond to emergency calls should be extended.
His recommendations have been accepted by the NHS while other changes will mean that A&E, cancer and waiting-time targets will now be released together on one day each month.
NHS England said the two indicators being scrapped penalised hospitals for treating patients who had waited longer than 18 weeks while the one that will remain, for 92 per cent of patients to be treated within the timeframe, is the only measure that captures the experience of every patient.
In a letter, Sir Bruce said getting rid of the two targets will “reduce tick-box bureaucracy and expose hidden waits”.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said a “much more consistent approach” was needed to make sense of the figures and ensure they are helping patients.
But shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said the move demonstrated the “NHS is going backwards under David Cameron and waiting lists are at a seven-year high”.
“Patients will wonder how scrapping these standards will help improve that situation,” he said.
“The Government should be trying to get things back on track and ensure patients have quicker access to treatment, rather than focusing on moving the goalposts.”
The different targets were brought in under Labour a decade ago and have brought down waiting times overall.
It said one which is being scrapped had been missed for nine of the last 12 months.
The changes were broadly welcomed by health chiefs.
NHS Confederation chief executive Rob Webster said: “Simplifying hospital waiting time measures so that providers are no longer penalised for doing the right thing for patients is a welcome step.”
Nuffield Trust chief executive Nigel Edwards said: “It is very welcome that the 18-week target for planned treatment is to be simplified, reducing the number of targets from three to one.
“Focusing on those still waiting for treatment, rather than the numbers of patients treated within a given timeframe, makes perfect sense. This should provide a more patient-focused measure of care.”
Mr Hunt, who outlined the changes at the NHS Confederation’s annual conference in Liverpool yesterday, told delegates the NHS is facing a “very, very challenging period in its history” before setting out a series of changes.
He said in coming months plans to create chains of hospitals would be put in place, as well as nationally-led initiatives to save £2 billion in NHS procurement, with each hospital given a target for savings. The NHS must save £22bn by 2020 which he admitted was a “very, very big challenge”.
Referring to the “scandal” of childhood obesity, he said the Government will be publishing a national childhood obesity strategy by the end of the year.