One in eight NHS trusts must urgently improve standards

Fewer hospitals rated "excellent" despite overall improvement in standards, according to new watchdo

One in eight NHS trusts must urgently improve the care it provides, despite an overall improvement in standards, according to assessments by a new regulator.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) publishes ratings on England's 392 trusts. Its complex annual assessment of the health service, published today, gave a mixed picture.

The performance tables showed reductions in waiting times and hospital acquired infections, but also showed a group of NHS trusts persistently failing to improve their ratings from "weak" or "fair".

Barbara Young, the chair of the CQC, highlighted 47 trusts that have been "underperforming for far too long". The Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust was rated "weak" in the provision of patient services for the fourth consecutive year. Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust has achieved the same low marks for the past three years.

The CQC noted the achievement that most patients in England receive hospital treatment within 18 weeks. There was an increase in the number of operations cancelled, although a greater number were rearranged for a new date within 28 days.

From April, the CQC - which took over the watchdog duties of the Healthcare Commission - will gain new powers to shut down any of the 47 underachieving trusts.

Mike O'Brien, NHS ratings health minister, said: "The newly created Care Quality Commission have given a tough assessment which also shows improving standards across the NHS. We have transformed the waiting experience for millions of patients and now have the shortest waits on record."

However, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said that the report showed that the government was failing to "turn round poor performers".

He said: "Many staff are doing a great job in keeping up high standards but we cannot allow that to obscure the fact that there has been poor performance in some very important areas in the NHS, such as maternity and stroke services.

"And it is unacceptable that the number of patients who have had their operations cancelled has risen so sharply."

In what the government has called the most rigorous assessment of the NHS ever, the CQC looked at every type of NHS trust, including primary care, mental health, acute, and ambulance.

While more than half of primary care trusts were rated "good" or "excellent", fewer acute trusts (hospitals providing medical and surgical care) were awarded "good" or "excellent" ratings, down from 77 per cent last year to 70 per cent.