Key Points:

Health Minister Tony Ryall will impose maximum patient waiting times on hospital emergency departments.

In foreshadowing the new policy to an emergency-doctors' conference yesterday, Mr Ryall did not state what the maximum waiting times from arrival to ward admission, transfer or discharge would be.

The Herald reported yesterday that a consensus is emerging - in talks among senior physicians and health officials - that the maximum time should be six hours and that no patient should be left waiting in an emergency department corridor. Recommendations are expected to be made to Mr Ryall within weeks.

In opposition, Mr Ryall campaigned against delays and overcrowding in emergency departments, which are a marker of a lack of resources elsewhere in the health system.

Yesterday, he told the Wellington conference of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine that he would introduce new health targets and would hold district health boards and their management accountable for meeting them.

"The Government will introduce firm targets for emergency department waiting times. No longer will it be acceptable for DHBs to leave patients waiting endlessly. I will consult with you in setting these targets, and ensure DHBs work with you in making it possible for you to meet them."

He cited Britain's success in reducing emergency department waiting times through a target maximum wait, set in 2004, of no more than four hours from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge. Within several years, he said, the proportion of patients waiting in emergency departments for more than four hours fell from 23 per cent, to 3 per cent.

In New Zealand, Health Ministry data from one large emergency department and two of medium size indicated that while the majority of patients were seen within several hours, up to 20 per cent at one of the hospitals spent more than eight hours in the emergency department.

Patient numbers at emergency departments were estimated to have grown by 20 per cent in the past five years, Mr Ryall said, which was well ahead of population growth.