Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Hanging around in hospital... how we're waiting for longer and longer

Kieran Donnelly
Kieran Donnelly

People are still waiting too long for hospital treatment in Northern Ireland, a new report reveals today.

Key targets are routinely missed with thousands of patients left waiting for months.

And despite pledges that no one should wait more than 12 hours at accident and emergency departments, delays have soared by almost 40%.

These shock findings are revealed in a new Audit Office report which examines how the health and social care sector performed in the past year.

The report concludes that more must be done to slash waiting times at our hospitals:

Its main findings include:

• Over 5,900 outpatients waited five months or more for treatment, with 775 inpatients waiting more than nine months.

• Numbers waiting over 12 hours at A&E departments increased by nearly 3,000 – despite a drop in attendance. The Belfast, Northern and South Eastern trusts have the worst delays at A&E departments.

• A 95% target for patients waiting four hours or less at A&E was missed in the last two years, with all health trusts seeing a decline in performance during the last year.

The Audit Office examined the 12 months to March 31, 2012, and today's report is the fourth analysis of the issue.

It comes just days after it emerged health bosses were paying millions for patients to be treated privately in a bid to drive down waiting lists.

Around £130m was paid out in the last three years, with one Belfast-based company receiving £44m.

Today's report reveals that, as of last March, 5,903 outpatients were waiting more than 21 weeks for treatment and 775 inpatients more than 36 weeks, defying targets which say no one should wait for these lengths.

People here also waited an average of 36 weeks for knee and hip replacements.

Under the NHS Constitution in England, there is a legal right for people to be treated within 18 weeks.

However, the Department of Health said there were no similar guidelines in Northern Ireland.

A further target is that no patient should wait longer than 12 hours for A&E treatment.

Despite a 1.6% drop in attendances during 2011/12, patients waiting more than 12 hours for treatment increased by 2,832 to 10,211, up 38.4%.

The vast majority of these (99.5%) were in the Belfast, Northern and South Eastern Trusts.

Today's report also raises concerns about fraud within the health system.

It refers to independent estimates that fraud on dental and ophthalmic charges alone is estimated to be £2.8m.

The report states the Counter Fraud and Probity Service received 104 reports of possible fraud during 2011/12.

These included 39 incidents where people who entered Northern Ireland illegally had accessed free health service treatments.

The anti-fraud body recovered £113,000 in respect of payment claims made by family health service practitioners and £30,098 from those who had fraudulently claimed exemption from health service charges.

The report also found that all HSC bodies achieved their financial target to break even in 2011/12.

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly (below) said that although finances were improved, more work had to be done to tackle waiting times.

"While 2011/12 was a year where the Health and Social Care sector recorded good financial results it was also a period when a range of important measures of health care performance, including accident and emergency waiting times, declined," he said. Mr Donnelly said there had been some improvements in the current year.

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