Senior doctors said an NHS target to carry out 92 per cent of non-urgent operations within 18 weeks of referral had been “jettisoned in all but name” as the health service struggles to meet demand. Simon Stevens acknowledged there was a “tradeoff”Credit:PA Last night David Hare, chief executive of the NHS Partners Network, urged patients to use their legal right to choose where to have treatment.Patients referred for most hospital care are supposed to be able to choose where they will be seen – or to switch provider if the waiting list where they are referred is more than 18 weeks.But NHS research shows just 47 per cent of people are aware of such rights, which were introduced by Labour and endorsed by successive Governments.Mr Hare said the piublic should be reminded of their rights, so patients could try to speed up their treatment at a time when NHS is “desperately short of elective capacity.”“With the NHS’ move to relax its commitment to treating NHS patients within 18 weeks, it is crucial patients are able to exercise their right to choose which provider they are treated by to ensure they can access the quickest available treatment,” he said. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. Mr Hare said that on average, independent sector providers were able to treat NHS patients six days quicker than health service providers could manage, at the same costs to the taxpayer.“Unless action is taken, patients will face unacceptably long waits for treatment which not only leaves them in pain for longer than required, but could also lead to medical complications,” he said. “We therefore urge the Government to take urgent action to ensure patients and the public are given sufficient information and are empowered to exercise their right to choose so they can access care as quickly as possible.” A total of 3.7million people in the UK are now on the waiting list for non-urgent operations, up from 2.4million in 2008.More than 360,000 of them have been on the waiting list for more than 18 weeks, equivalent to one in 10.Health officials say much of this is fuelled by an ageing population.Last Simon Stevens, head of the NHS, said a rise in waiting times for routine procedures, which include hip and knee operations and cataract removal, might be a “trade off” for improvement in other areas, such as hitting the four-hour A&E target, and better cancer care.The Government attracted heavy criticism this winter for the worst A&E performance on record.Mr Stevens said last month that he aimed to “get the patient experience of A&E back on track” as soon as possible.” However, officials denied that the 18 week target had been dropped.An NHS England spokesman said: “Since the early 2000s we’ve more than doubled the number of NHS hip and knee operations, and expect yet further growth in non urgent surgery over the next few years. Most NHS operations are now done in well under 12 weeks, and patients will continue to be able to choose where their operation takes place.” The number of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for surgery is set to double in the next three years, the health service has been warned.The new analysis, based on official NHS figures suggests the total number waiting for operations will reach almost 5 million in 2020 – an increase of almost 2 million since 2015.On current trends, that will include more than 800,000 patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment – a rise from 360,000 today, the research shows.The analysis was carried out by the NHS Partners Network – which represents independent providers of NHS care, which urged patients to be more “sharp elbowed” about getting the treatment needed.The organisation said too few patients were aware of a legal right to choose where to have NHS treatment – including the option to choose locations with shorter waiting lists, including private hospitals.Last month the head of the NHS admitted that times for routine operations are likely to grow longer, as cash-strapped hospitals prioritise emergency and cancer care.