The centres, at King George Hospital in Goodmayes, Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Harold Wood Polyclinic and Barking Hospital were all rated as ‘inadequate’ after inspections late last year.
Two of the centres are attached to hospital emergency departments, where they assess all walk-in patients and treat those with minor injuries and illnesses.
Concerns raised by inspectors from the Care Quality Commission (CQC), England’s healthcare regulator, included short staffing, long waiting times and a failure to learn from serious incidents.
After a visit in June by the CQC’s chief inspector Dr Sean O’Kelly, the centres’ ratings were upgraded to ‘requires improvement’ after he found that “significant work” has been done to address the problems.
This includes improved logging of serious incidents and complaints, better leadership and a “clear vision and credible strategy” to provide high-quality care.
However, Dr O’Kelly concluded that while progress has been made there is still an “ongoing risk” of patients in need of urgent medical attention facing long waits.
Management of the centres, which serve millions of residents in east London and West Essex, is outsourced to a non-profit GP organisation called Partnership of East London Co-operatives (PELC).
Although the four centres are no longer in special measures, the CQC still found they are in breach of the Health and Social Care Act 2008 for failing to fill “regular rota gaps” of staff and employing doctors who are not GPs.
Patients are still not being assessed within 15 minutes, inspectors found.
READ MORE: A&E performance on the rise at east London hospitals
NHS statistics comparing hospital urgent treatment centres across the country show that only 70 per cent of patients at Queen’s and King George hospitals are dealt with in under four hours, the poorest performance in England.
Inspectors visiting last year found that PELC was not measuring how quickly it assessed patients at all.
Once it began measuring assessments, its statistics showed that only 20pc were completed within 15 minutes – this has now risen to 67pc at King George and 76pc at Queen’s.
On failing to meet the NHS England target of dealing with 95pc of patients within four hours, PELC told the inspectors it is only contracted to treat 65pc of patients arriving at the emergency departments’ front doors.
The report added: “[PELC] reported that due to changes to services within the healthcare system, this was now over 75pc, and sometimes as high as 85pc.”
Matthew Trainer, chief executive of Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust – which runs King George, Queen’s and Barking hospitals – has previously criticised the unusual model of PELC, an outside organisation, managing the centres.
Due to a complex contractual arrangement agreed behind closed doors in December 2019, a separate NHS body – NHS North East London – is responsible for monitoring PELC.
NHS North East London has refused to provide the Local Democracy Reporting Service with any details of how or why it awarded PELC with contracts to run the centres, arguing that the information is “commercially sensitive”.
A spokesperson for PELC said it is pleased CQC has recognised the progress made since the last inspection.
They added: “The significant improvements highlighted in the latest reports are testament to the ongoing hard work of our clinicians and staff and an acknowledgement that the approach our new management team is taking to raise standards across our local urgent treatment centres is making a positive difference.
“However, we accept that we still have work to do in a number of areas including our performance against the national four-hour standard.
“Having focused on the issues deemed the greatest priority following the previous inspection last year, we will continue to work with our partners to make further improvements.”
A spokesperson for NHS North East London said: “Partners across the health and care system have been working closely with PELC on a joint action plan to address the issues raised in the latest inspection reports as quickly as possible.
“While we know there is still more work to be done, progress is being made and we will continue to work with our providers to reduce waiting times and ensure patients using can access safe, high-quality treatment wherever they live.”
Ian Buckmaster, chief executive of Healthwatch Havering, said: “We very much welcome the fact that they are improving.
“We know they’ve got a long way to go, but they’re definitely moving in the right direction.”