Half of Northern Ireland patients with bad back wait more than a year to see consultant
More than 50% of people in Northern Ireland waiting for a spinal assessment have been holding on more than a year for their first consultant appointment, figures have shown.
The Department of Health statistics, obtained by the Ulster Unionist Party, showed 4,250 of the 7,911 patients have been waiting more than 12 months.
A further 2,502 patients have been waiting between 18 weeks and 52 weeks.
Earlier this year the party revealed that the waiting time for routine spinal appointments in April was approximately 110 weeks and rising.
UUP health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson MLA said the figures showed the Department of Health was ready to "tolerate pain, rather than treating it".
"Back pain can be incredibly debilitating," she added. "It is absolutely appalling that so many people are having to wait so long for essential spinal appointments because delays in spinal treatment can directly lead to patients coming to harm."
Mrs Dobson stressed the figures "further illustrate the sheer unprecedented scale of the crisis affecting our local health service". She added: "The simple reality is that the current capacity in the Musgrave Park Hospital spinal service does not meet the demand for services.
"Until the minister and the Executive recognises this, the situation will inevitably worsen.
"The only support being offered by the local health service to people finding themselves trapped on this list is often a bland encouragement to attend their GP for ongoing pain management."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said minister Michelle O'Neill was aware of the problem.
"She has said many times that tackling long waiting times is one of her top priorities, and she understands the worry and stress that it causes for patients and their families," she added.
"Long waiting times are a product of the increased pressure on our health service. Demand is growing due to an ageing population, emergence of new technologies and changing practice in healthcare.
"The long-term solution is the transformation set out in (the) Delivering Together (plan).
"We need to move to a population health model and we need to create a more sustainable service - one that makes the best use of the resources we have to deliver the best possible service to patients.
"However, this future model cannot succeed if it inherits the waiting lists we have currently. All efforts are being made to address this serious issue."
The spokeswoman explained that the minister had recently identified £4m to invest in elective care.
"She has repeatedly said that she will not be found wanting in her approach in dealing with waiting lists and will do everything that she can to address them," she said.
The minister has called for "urgent and sustained action" to tackle the problem and has promised a new waiting lists strategy early in the new year.
The spokeswoman said the minister thanked healthcare workers as "notwithstanding the structural issues, they continue to work incredibly hard and on average deliver 9,000 outpatient appointments, 2,600 inpatient/day case procedures and 31,000 diagnostic tests per week".