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12 operations called off at last minute every day because Northern Ireland hospitals can't cope

Equipment failures and lack of available staff among reasons given by Health Minister

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 21/09/2016

More than 5,000 procedures were called off for non-clinical reasons in a 15-month period
More than 5,000 procedures were called off for non-clinical reasons in a 15-month period

Twelve operations are cancelled at the last minute every day in Northern Ireland's hospitals because staff or equipment are not available.

More than 5,000 procedures were called off for non-clinical reasons in a 15-month period. All were postponed at less than 48 hours' notice.

The reasons included list over-runs, emergencies and equipment failure and unavailability.

According to health unions, the situation will only get worse.

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill revealed that between January 2015 and March 2016, there were 5,580 operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons.

These included:

  • 1,561 operations at the Royal Group of Hospitals;
  • 894 operations at Belfast City Hospital;
  •  506 operations at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry
  •  401 operations at Antrim Area Hospital;
  • And 306 operations at Craigavon Area Hospital.

The figures were released by the Health Minister after an Assembly question from SDLP MLA Gerry Mullan.

Ms O'Neill said the non-clinical reasons included lists over-running, emergencies and equipment failure and unavailability.

A further 14,137 operations were cancelled for other reasons. These included patient cancellation or the patient being clinically unsuitable to undergo a procedure.

Joe McCusker, a regional organiser with the health workers' union Unison, said the figures were alarming.

"It comes as no surprise as we know about waiting lists - at one point more than 40,000 people were waiting on outpatient appointments," he added.

"There is huge demand on the service, and the capacity to deal with the demand on the service is not there.

"Without proper identification as to why these are being cancelled, and increasing the capacity in the health service, we don't see this abating at all."

Mr McCusker also told how cancelling an operation at the last minute had a devastating impact on patients. "In many cases they will not be given a time or date for when they are likely to have it again," he said.

"Failure to allocate the appropriate resources to meet the demand only leads to further problems down the line. If these people don't receive the surgery they need, their ailments get worse and it could lead to them needing more complex surgery."

Mr Mullan added that it was clear from the figures he obtained that the system could not cope. "I think serious questions must be asked of how our health service is run in the face of these figures," he said.

"The cancellation of appointments because of equipment failure, staff shortages and other mounting pressures on the system demonstrates that our health service simply cannot cope and that the situation is getting worse, not better.

"The worst reading comes from our largest hospital, where numbers of appointments cancelled due to stress on the system almost matched those cancelled for all other reasons. The minister must examine the individual reasons for this unacceptably high number of cancellations and work with the trusts to address them as a priority."

The figures cover the period when the DUP held the health ministry.

DUP MLA Paula Bradley, who chairs the Assembly's health committee, said the statistics needed further investigation.

"This is something which the health committee will have to consider," she added. "We know that the system is under pressure and that there are long waiting lists for a number of reasons.

"Behind the statistics are people, and their health is paramount. It is important that we pinpoint the reasons behind why operations have been cancelled and put in place ways in which these can be rectified."

Last night, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill told the Belfast Telegraph: "I look to the Health and Social Care Board and trusts to ensure that the need to postpone procedures for non-clinical reasons is kept to an absolute minimum, and I note that during 2015/16, nearly 226,000 operations were delivered as planned.

"However, I fully appreciate the impact that a postponement can have on individual patients and their families, and I would reassure such patients that trusts will make every effort to reschedule these procedures as quickly as possible."

Last month, the Belfast Telegraph reported that hospitals were cancelling 230 appointments every day because of staff shortages.

A report by the Department of Health revealed 153,498 appointments were postponed in the 12 months to April - 9.2% of all appointments.

In 52,633 cases it was because a consultant was not available, in 6,024 cases it was because nurses or other medical staff were unavailable, and in 17,786 cases an administrative error by the hospital or GP was to blame.

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