If you're referred for a physical or mental health condition, you have the legal right to start non-urgent consultant-led treatment, or be seen by a specialist for suspected cancer, within maximum waiting times.
This right only applies to services commissioned by the NHS in England and doesn't include public health services commissioned by local authorities, maternity services, or non-consultant-led mental health services.
Find out more about mental health waiting time targets.
Your waiting time starts from the point the hospital or service receives your referral letter, or when you book your first appointment through the NHS e-Referral Service.
During this time period, you may:
- undergo tests, scans or other procedures to help ensure that your treatment is tailored appropriately to your condition
- have medication or therapy to manage your symptoms until you start treatment
- be referred to another consultant or department
Your waiting time ends if a clinician decides no treatment is necessary, you decide you don't want to be treated, or when your treatment begins.
This could include:
- being admitted to hospital for an operation or treatment
- starting treatment that doesn't require you to stay in hospital, such as taking medication
- beginning fitting for a medical device, such as leg braces
- agreeing to your condition being monitored for a time to see whether you need further treatment
- receiving advice from hospital staff to manage your condition
Tip: Did you know that in most cases you have the legal right to choose the hospital or service you'd like to go to, as well as the clinical team led by a consultant or named healthcare professional? For more information, see our guidance on choosing a hospital or consultant and choosing a mental health service.
Maximum waiting times for non-urgent referrals
The maximum waiting time for non-urgent consultant-led treatments is 18 weeks from the day your appointment is booked through the NHS e-Referral Service, or when the hospital or service receives your referral letter.
However, your right to an 18-week waiting time does not apply if:
- you choose to wait longer
- delaying the start of your treatment is in your best clinical interests – for example, where stopping smoking or losing weight is likely to improve the outcome of the treatment
- it is clinically appropriate for your condition to be actively monitored in secondary care without clinical intervention or diagnostic procedures at that stage
- you fail to attend appointments that you had chosen from a set of reasonable options
- the treatment is no longer necessary
Maximum waiting times for urgent cancer referrals
The maximum waiting time for suspected cancer is two weeks from the day your appointment is booked through the NHS e-Referral Service, or when the hospital or service receives your referral letter.
Note: Referrals for investigations of breast symptoms where cancer is not initially suspected are not urgent referrals for suspected cancer, and therefore fall outside the scope of this right.
You have the legal right to ask to be seen or treated by a different provider if you're likely to wait longer than the maximum waiting time specified for your treatment. The hospital or clinical commissioning group (CCG) will have to investigate and offer you a range of suitable alternative hospitals or clinics that would be able to see you sooner. If you're not happy with the organisation's response, you can complain using the NHS complaints procedure.
Compare waiting times
Waiting times may vary between hospitals, and you should consider this when choosing a hospital.
When you're referred for your first outpatient appointment, the NHS e-Referral Service lets you book the appointment at a hospital or clinic of your choice, on a date and at a time that suits you.
You can compare waiting times for hospitals on this site. Simply select hospitals from the Services near you dropdown at the top of any page. Select the "Surgical Procedures" tab and enter a treatment and postcode into the search field.
Note: Waiting times shown are for the specialty or service that the procedure sits under as a whole. For example, if you look up hip replacement, you will find the average waiting time for an orthopaedics inpatient at that hospital.
The length of time you wait will depend on your specific treatment and clinical needs, and you could be seen quicker or wait longer than this average waiting time.
What happens if my operation is cancelled at the last minute?
If the hospital or service cancels your operation at the last minute (on or after the day of admission) and for non-clinical reasons, they should offer another binding date within 28 days or fund your treatment at a date and hospital of your choice.
If you're not offered an appointment within 28 days, you should complain to your local CCG using the NHS complaints procedure.
If your operation is cancelled before the day of admission, the hospital or service is not obliged to provide an alternative option within 28 days.
However, your right to start consultant-led treatment within a maximum waiting time still stands. If cancelling your appointment results in you having to wait longer, you have the right to ask the hospital or CCG to move you to a different provider.
Page last reviewed: 14 November 2016
Next review due: 14 November 2019