BIG challenges must be overcome during the autumn if maximum 26-week waiting times for patients are to be met in Gwent hospitals by the end of the year.

But Gwent health bosses have reported significant improvements in performance against the new target, which Assembly health minister Edwina Hart wants to see achieved by December 31.

The 26-week target is being measured on the basis of a Referral to Treatment Time (RTT), which begins when the hospital receives a GP's referral of a patient, and ends with an operation or other definitive treatment or therapy.

The RTT includes outpatient appointments, diagnostic tests and other procedures and replaces the old waiting times measurement, which put individual targets on each stage of a patients' wait.

Based on the latest figures, for July, 87 per cent of Gwent patients who needed admission to hospital for their treatment were admitted inside 26 weeks, and 96 per cent of those whose treatment or therapy could be provided as an outpatient were seen inside 26 weeks.

This is a big improvement on figures from just two months before, helped by changes in the way patients' journeys through the hospital system are recorded to provide a more accurate indication of progress.

Reduction of waiting times to 26 weeks has taken several years, and two changes of health minister, since Jane Hutt occupied the post, and Ms Hart has repeatedly stressed the importance to the NHS in Wales of reaching this milestone.

She has however, agreed to two-five per cent leeway on achievement of the target, recognising that patient choice and the complexity of some cases can cause unavoidable delays.

Gwent health bosses are not relaxing just yet however. At the end of July, there were more than 5,000 patients who had waited more than 26 weeks, a sizeable backlog despite the improvements.