How long will I have to wait to see a consultant?

It depends on why you need to see the consultant. 

Emergency treatment

If you have chest pains and heart disease is suspected, you should be seen at a specialist chest pain clinic (rapid access chest pain clinic) within two weeks of referral. 

Non-emergency treatment

For conditions that aren’t urgent, you have the right to start treatment led by a consultant within 18 weeks from when your GP, dentist or other healthcare professional refers you (unless you want to wait longer or waiting longer is clinically right for you). Within the 18 weeks, you should have any tests, scans or other procedures that you need before treatment starts.  

Cancer

Where cancer is suspected, you have the right to be seen by a specialist within two weeks from referral. Most people referred like this don’t have cancer but it’s important to see a specialist as soon as possible to confirm or exclude a cancer diagnosis.

Where you have a right and these time limits cannot be met, if you ask, the NHS must take all reasonable steps to offer you a quicker appointment at a range of other healthcare providers. 

When the maximum waiting times for treatment don’t apply

The right to treatment within 18 weeks from referral does not include maternity services or non-medical consultant-led mental health services.

There are also some exceptions where the right to treatment within 18 weeks does not apply, for example, if:

  • you choose to wait longer
  • there is a clinical or medical reason why you should wait longer

For more information about waiting times, including other exceptions, see Choice in the NHS: waiting times.  

Consultant-led treatment

If your GP thinks you need a specialist opinion about your health condition, you’ll be referred to a consultant who specialises in that area of medicine. Examples of specialists include:

  • a gynaecologist (specialist in women's reproductive health)
  • a dermatologist (specialist in skin conditions) 

The consultant will be responsible for your overall care, but won’t always be present at each appointment.  

Patient choice of hospital

When you’re referred for your first outpatient appointment, you have the right to choose where you have your consultant-led treatment. You’ll be given an outpatient appointment to see the consultant at a hospital, but you won’t have to stay overnight.  

Waiting times may vary between hospitals. You may decide you prefer a specific hospital. However, your decision may also depend on, for example:

  • your GP's recommendation
  • how soon you need to start treatment 
  • whether the hospital specialises in a specific treatment 
  • where the hospital is – it may be easier for you to get to one hospital than another  

Booking your first appointment

You or your GP can book your first outpatient appointment through the national Choose and Book service:

  • your GP can book it while you’re at the surgery
  • you can book it online using the appointment request letter your GP gives you  
  • you can phone the Choose and Book appointments line on 0345 6088 888 (open 8am to 8pm Monday–Friday, 8am to 4pm weekends and bank holidays)

For more information, visit the Choose and Book website.

Read the answers to more questions about NHS services and treatments.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 14/05/2012

Next review due: 13/05/2014