Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

If surgical 'capacity' always matched or exceeded 'demand' then there should be no waiting lists for surgery. However, understanding what is meant by 'demand', 'capacity' and 'matched' requires some mathematical concepts that we outline in this paper. 'Time' is the relevant measure: 'demand' for a surgical team is best understood as the total min required for the surgery booked from outpatient clinics every week; and 'capacity' is the weekly operating time available. We explain how the variation in demand (not just the mean demand) influences the analysis of optimum capacity. However, any capacity chosen in this way is associated with only a likelihood (that is, a probability rather than certainty) of absorbing the prevailing demand. A capacity that suitably absorbs the demand most of the time (for example, > 80% of weeks) will inevitably also involve considerable waste (that is, many weeks in which there is spare, unused capacity). Conversely, a level of capacity chosen to minimise wasted time will inevitably cause an increase in size of the waiting list. Thus the question of how to balance demand and capacity is intimately related to the question of how to balance utilisation and waste. These mathematical considerations enable us to consider objectively how to manage the waiting list. They also enable us critically to analyse the extent to which philosophies adopted by the National Health Service (such as 'Lean' or 'Six Sigma') will be successful in matching surgical capacity to demand.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





625 - 640


Appointments and Schedules, General Surgery, Health Services Research, Humans, State Medicine, Systems Theory, Time Management, United Kingdom, Waiting Lists