WAITS of more than 36 weeks for patients in Gwent, from referral to treatment, increased slightly during November last year, the latest figures reveal.

A further increase was predicted by Aneurin Bevan University Health Board for December, though figures for last month have yet to be published.

But if plans for the first quarter of 2018 are not derailed by winter pressures beyond those planned for, the aim is to reduce the number of patients waiting beyond 36 weeks to just 145 by the end of March.

By November 30, 1,489 patients had been waiting longer than 36 weeks for treatment at Gwent hospitals. Orthopaedics continued to account for more then half of these, with the 792 cases a small increase on the previous month.

Ophthalmology (590 cases) was the next highest, though this represented a small decrease from October, the first in seven months.

These two specialties, by dint of sheer numbers, represent the biggest risks for the health board not reducing 36-week waits to its target 145 by March 31, though ophthalmology is the larger concern due to ongoing issues around a microscope replacement scheme, and long term sickness among nursing and consultant staff. The latter is compounded by the service being unable to recruit into key specialist posts.

An improvement that should stand the health board in good stead during the coming months as it seeks to reduce referral to treatment waits of longer than 36 weeks, is a significant reduction - of 21 per cent - in the number of patients waiting between 26 and 36 weeks, from September-November last year.

At November 30, 6,143 patients had been waiting 26-36 weeks, the lowest figure for more than three years. If this can slow the numbers subsequently rising above 36 weeks, more progress on reducing the latter could be made.

Waits of more than a year for treatment are now below 200. These are mainly due to issues of sub-specialty, and to patients having other health problems that can delay treatment.