LONG waits for diagnostic tests for Gwent patients have fallen by 75 per cent during the year to January 31, and are continuing to decrease, according to estimates.

At the end of January 2017, 5,203 patients had been waiting more than eight weeks for a test, but a year later the figure was 1,261.

And Aneurin Bevan University Health Board (UHB) has reported that figures for February that have yet to be ratified, indicate a further reduction, to a little above 700.

The aim is that by the end of March, no patient in Gwent will have been waiting more than eight weeks, which is the maximum under Welsh Government targets for the whole of Wales.

Until recently, Aneurin Bevan UHB had for some time had more patients waiting beyond eight weeks than anywhere else in Wales, but this is no longer the case.

But the task of tackling a huge backlog of long waits has been very challenging, and has not been helped by equipment failures (in endoscopy), a drug shortage (in nuclear medicine), and capacity issues.

The as yet unconfirmed figures for February also suggest that the health board has achieved another diagnostic tests target set by the Welsh Government.

It was agreed earlier in the financial year that, based on the allocation of extra funding, the number of patients in Gwent waiting more than six weeks for a test be reduced to no more than 1,700 by the end of March.

And a health board report states that at the end of February the figure is fewer than 1,600.

Overall, endoscopy accounts for the large majority of test waits of more than eight weeks. By the end of January this had been cut to 970, a reduction of almost two-thirds in 12 months.

Within that, the longest waits - of beyond 24 weeks - have been cut from more than 700 to 53.

Capacity shortfalls and equipment failures have been major factors in the backlog, but since last May the health board has been sending some patients to the Emersons Green NHS Treatment Centre in Bristol, in addition to using its own facilities, and this has helped drive the reduction.

Waits of more than eight weeks for radiology-based tests, such as MRI, CT and ultrasound scans, have fallen sharply too, from 2,225 in January 2017, to 249 a year later.