The number of people facing a lengthy wait for treatment has increased by more than a quarter, reaching its highest level since 2004. According to The King’s Fund Report 4.2% (226,021) of A&E patients waited more than four hours from January to March, compared with 3.4% in the same period last year.

The report suggests the sharp rise reflects the difficulties many hospitals are facing in keeping up performance while under extraordinary financial pressure and there is emerging evidence of increases in “trolley waits” as many hospitals are struggling to find beds for their patients.

Treating a patient who has been waiting the longest

The national target is for 95% of A&E patents to be seen within four hours. 48 NHS providers failed to meet this target in the final quarter of last year compared with 18 NHS providers in the second quarter. Doctors argue that the target sees them treating a patient who has been waiting the longest rather than those who need the most urgent care.

The NHS needs to make £20 billion productivity improvements by 2015. To meet this many hospitals are reducing staff and hospital beds which have an immediate impact on patient waiting times.

Overall the study found the NHS was performing well in a number of key areas - inpatients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment fell, while outpatient waits remained static and C difficile and MRSA infections dropped by 33% and 14% respectively.

Kashmir Uppal a solicitor at Thompsons Solicitors’ Clinical Negligence Unit said: “We have acted in many cases where a patient’s condition has deteriorated whilst waiting to be seen. Although doctors and nurses are doing their best to see and treat patients as soon as possible, the squeeze on NHS services is making this more and more difficult.”