Scotland politics

Probe into NHS waiting time practices

Image caption Health boards have been asked to look into how waiting times are managed

The public spending watchdog is to launch a Scotland-wide probe into whether health boards are doctoring waiting times to hit targets.

The Audit Scotland probe came after NHS Lothian was caught wrongly listing patients as "unavailable."

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said there was "absolutely no evidence" that such practices were widespread.

Labour claimed ministers have been trying to brush a "hidden waiting times scandal" under the carpet.

NHS Lothian was found to be marking patients as unavailable, to artificially reduce the number in breach of the statutory waiting times guarantees.

The board offered treatment in England at short notice and recorded patients as unavailable if they did not travel, an independent investigation found.

Audit Scotland will look at the use of "social unavailability codes" throughout Scotland, and whether patients logged as "unavailable" for an appointment were actually available.

In a letter to Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie, the watchdog's director of performance audit, Barbara Hurst, said: "The auditor general has now asked Audit Scotland to review the management of NHS waiting times, recognising the importance of this for patients and the public and the need for independent assurance in this area.

"We will examine how social unavailability codes have been used by NHS boards and will focus our attention around the period when discrepancies came to light in NHS Lothian."

Detailed audit

Ms Baillie said: "This is a hugely positive development and comes in sharp contrast to Nicola Sturgeon's attempts at Holyrood to block an inquiry into the SNP's hidden waiting times scandal.

"Scottish Labour has been pressing the government to hold a full, independent, Scotland-wide investigation for months now. But at every turn the SNP seemed desperate to brush our concerns under the carpet."

Ms Sturgeon has already asked NHS boards to review their waiting times practices with the help of Audit Scotland.

The health secretary added: "There is absolutely no evidence that these practices are widespread.

"However, it is important to show that recording of waiting times data is accurate and transparent.

"That is why I have asked all territorial health boards to undertake a specific and detailed audit of local waiting-times management and processes, as part of each board's internal audit programme over 2012-13."

Audit Scotland's report will go to parliament after the summer recess.

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