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Health chiefs are urged to tackle 'spiralling' outpatient waiting lists in Northern Ireland

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 29/05/2015

Patients in a hospital waiting room
Patients in a hospital waiting room

Calls have been made for Northern Ireland health bosses to urgently step in to deal with "spiralling" outpatient waiting times after new figures reveal they have rocketed by more than 50% in a year.

Shocking new figures show the health service is continuing to miss Government targets, with 82,486 patients now waiting 15 weeks to see a specialist for the first time.

This is a rise of 28% compared to when 19,173 people were waiting almost four months for appointments in March 2014.

According to the Department of Health, the total number of people on the list jumped by 50.9% from 64,684 last March to 127,095.

Guidelines say at least 80% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, and no patient waiting longer than 15 weeks.

The latest figures have led to calls for urgent intervention to be taken by the Health and Social Care Board and health minister.

A DHSSPS spokeswoman said the waiting time standards were disappointing but "not unexpected".

Former Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said the figures are a clear sign of the "crumbling" health service that needs immediate investment.

"These are numbers the department is putting out, but each number represents a person," he said.

"Somebody who is worried and concerned about their health.

"Saying something is not unexpected is just a cop out. They know what they have to do. They have to find the resources to fund the health service to deal with the demands. This is in outpatients, it is in A&E it is in diagnostics."

The UUP MLA and member of the Stormont health committee added: "We have got to the point where cancer waiting times are on the slide and the worst A&E times in the UK, which are signs that the health service is crumbling. It is disgraceful.

"They need to intervene and take the steps necessary to fix this."

A DHSSPS spokeswoman said: "As the previous Health Minister warned in his statement to the Assembly on October 14, 2014, it would not be possible to maintain current levels of service provision in the absence of all the required levels of funding, and this is still proving to be the case.

"Due to the wider HSC financial position, it has not been possible to fund trusts to undertake additional activity in the second half of this year therefore, given the gap between demand and funded capacity, regrettably an increase in the number of patients waiting longer than the ministerial maximum waiting time standards is inevitable across a range of specialties in all trusts."

The spokeswoman added: "It is regrettable that some patients are waiting longer for assessment and treatment.

"However, the majority of patients waiting for a diagnostic test and for inpatient/daycase treatment are still within the target waiting times.

"The minister wants to see all patients get timely access to safe and high quality care and that services are delivered in the most cost effective way possible."

107,957: people waiting more than nine weeks March 2015

82,486: people waiting more than 15 weeks for a first outpatient appointment at the end of March 2015

19,173: waiting more than 15 weeks at the end of March 2014 at the end of March 2014

127,095: waiting for a first outpatient appointment at the end of March 2015

191,779: waiting for a first outpatient appointment

Belfast Telegraph writer Helen Carson on her hospital ordeal

Thank goodness I’m a healthy person who is rarely troubled with even the most minor of ailments.

And I was particularly grateful for that fact earlier this week. Having failed to get an appointment with my doctor — it was a two-week wait to see any of the GPs in the practice — I decided to go to A&E after work. How busy could it be?

My heart sank when I saw the crowds in the waiting area at the Ulster Hospital, but undeterred I registered my details with the receptionist and took a seat, which I was lucky to get.

Old, young, couples with children, entire families and me, but there was worse to come. I hadn’t noticed a TV screen which keeps a tally of those waiting, those in triage and those waiting on a bed. My list — ‘those waiting’ stood at 86, that’s right, there were 85 people in front of me. At first I thought it was a mistake as I tried to count all the people in the room, which was stifling hot at this stage.

I’m sure they have a system I reassured myself, but after half-an-hour it was standing room only and only two people had been called. Another hour-and-a-half and the people were being called and treated but the list of people waiting was still sitting at 80-something. I was prepared to wait another hour, but it was already quite late and I didn’t want to leave my teenage son, who would be home from my parents’ house, on his own any longer. I decided to call it quits and told the receptionist that I was going home, so she could take my name off the waiting list. I could see people going in to see medical staff but the numbers just never seemed to go down, with more patients streaming in the door.

I was in to get a medical opinion on a minor ailment which was nonetheless bothering me, and with no possibility of a GP appointment for a fortnight, A&E was the only option. I felt incredibly sorry for the elderly people sitting there in wheelchairs waiting for goodness knows how long — I was able to get up and walk out the door, but there was a family there with their young daughter whose leg was in a cast, they couldn’t leave either.

I dread to think what the A&E would be like at the weekend, but it seems obvious to me that our NHS staff are under an incredible amount of pressure working in a system where patient need seems to outstrip the medical resource.

I am lucky to have good health, but there are so many people who rely on the expertise of NHS staff and facilities day-in, day-out — someday it will probably be me, and I hope the NHS will be in better shape by then.

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