More than 52,000 patients in Northern Ireland waited for a first hospital appointment for more than nine weeks, it was revealed yesterday.
Health minister Michael McGimpsey had promised to crack down on the delays. By next year no patient should have to queue more than nine weeks. The Department of Health released figures for the end of September today.
Doctors have complained the focus on first appointments was disadvantaging patients already in the system.
British Medical Association (BMA) chairman in Northern Ireland Dr Paul Darragh said: "Doctors are working harder than ever to make sure patients are seen promptly according to clinical need.
"However they are being frustrated by a culture whereby non-clinical managers are striving to reach first-time referral targets which inevitably skews resources to the detriment of other patients."
He said patients who needed a follow-up or review appointment often found their appointments unacceptably delayed.
"There is no official "target" for these tens of thousands of patients; however delays in treatment will almost inevitably lead to a worsening of their conditions," he added.
At the end of September there were 52,326 (40%) patients waiting more than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, of which 35,969 were waiting more than 13 weeks. The number of patients waiting longer than nine weeks represented an increase of 23,177 on the figure for the previous three months (29,149), and was up 47,767 on the corresponding quarter in 2009 (4,559).
Overall, an extra 18,615 people were lingering in line for a first appointment.
Mr McGimpsey said £50 million to expand health service capacity in the last two years will help reduce waiting lists.
"It is very disappointing again to see further increases but we must not forget the significant improvements in waiting times over the last number of years," he said.
"These rises are a direct result of my budget being repeatedly cut. If my budget is to be further cut then we will see more increases in waiting times because we simply cannot meet the demand for services without the funding to match it.
"I apologise to those patients who are waiting longer for surgery and outpatient appointments and assure the public that I am making every effort to get people treated as quickly as possible."