Diagnostic test waiting times

We examine how long people have to wait for a diagnostic test or procedure.


Last updated: 16/08/2018

Access and waiting times
Hospital care

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

The six week diagnostic wait was initially introduced as a 'milestone' in March 2008 to support the achievement of the 18 week referral to treatment (RTT) target, but diagnostic waiting times are now part of the NHS Constitution. This gives patients the legal right to have a diagnostic test within six weeks of the request being sent.

How has the proportion of patients waiting six weeks or longer for a diagnostic test changed over time? 16/08/2018

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The proportion of patients waiting longer than six weeks for a diagnostic test fell dramatically between December 2006 and March 2008, when the diagnostic wait 'milestone' was introduced. Since then, the proportion of patients waiting longer than the target 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 June 2018, 2.9% of patients had been waiting longer than six weeks for a diagnostic test.

How long do people wait on average for diagnostic tests? 16/08/2018

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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 February 2006 and February 2008 the median waiting time fell from 6.5 weeks to 1.9 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 overall median wait has been slowly increasing over time, fluctuating 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.

How many people are on the waiting list for a diagnostic test? 16/08/2018

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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 June 2018 over one million 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 each month; in June 2007, 963,701 diagnostic tests were carried out and this almost doubled to reach 1.9 million in June 2018.

About this data

These statistics measure waiting times for 15 key diagnostic tests and procedures: Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Computed Tomography, Non-obstetric Ultrasound, Barium Enema, DEXA Scan, Audiology - Audiology Assessments, Cardiology - Echocardiography, Cardiology - Electrophysiology, Neurophysiology - Peripheral Neurophysiology, Respiratory physiology - Sleep Studies, Urodynamics - Pressures & Flows, Colonoscopy, Flexi Sigmoidoscopy, Cystoscopy and Gastroscopy.

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.