Health trust spends £1m on tablet computers while waiting lists spiral
A health trust is under fire after spending more than £1 million on tablets - of the computer type.
The Belfast Trust bought 940 devices in the last three years.
Around two-thirds bought in the last two years - 655 tablets - were described as non-clinical, the trust disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information request.
It comes as the health service is facing severe financial pressure.
Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, who uncovered the expenditure, said the money could have been better spent.
"It has been clear for some time that our NHS in Northern Ireland is at breaking point," she said.
"This makes the decision by the Belfast Trust to purchase 655 tablets so difficult to understand."
The trust said most of the devices were used by nurses, clinicians and other health professionals.
A total of 940 tablets were bought for almost £1.2m in the three years to April. Of the 655 described as non-clinical, more than half - 339 costing £343,000 - were bought in the last 12 months. A further £480,000 was spent buying 273 for clinical use on rounds.
According to Mrs Dobson, the items ranged from £853 to £1,806.
The latest figures show a record 373,000 people across Northern Ireland are waiting on treatment, a hospital appointment or a diagnostic test.
Mrs Dobson added: "Hospital waiting lists are spiralling, cancer services are deteriorating and bodies as eminent as the Royal College of Midwives are being forced into the position that they feel they simply have no choice but to take industrial action.
"Given that the pressure on services in the Belfast Trust has been especially acute, and where we are told funding constraints have been directly contributing to the ballooning waiting times, I am surprised that they thought it appropriate to purchase so many electronic tablets and pay such a high price for them."
Mrs Dobson raised the issue in a meeting of the Stormont health committee on Wednesday, saying other health trusts had purchased fewer devices and at cheaper prices.
Belfast Trust chief executive Dr Michael McBride, appearing before the committee, defended the expenditure.
He said it allowed staff to spend more time on front line care, adding: "We are looking at innovative ways whereby we can facilitate practitioners entering information directly and using that innovatively rather than returning to base. They can spend more time on front line services, delivering services and using modern technology to provide that service more efficiently."
He also revealed the health service would have to invest significantly more in mobile technology.
However, Mrs Dobson questioned why so many tablet computers were necessary.
"I believe modern technology should have an important role to play, but that should not be used as an excuse for staff to acquire the latest models," she said.
"This prioritisation of considerable expenditure will come as little comfort to the many thousands of people waiting in agony for surgery and treatment."
A spokesman for the Belfast Trust said it was committed to delivering the highest standard of care to patients and clients.
"The terms clinical and non-clinical refer to the construction of the device and not its purpose," it said.
"Clinical devices are specifically manufactured for specific medical environments. Our non-clinical devices are also used by nurses, clinicians, social and community care health professionals.
"The majority of the non-clinical devices are used for accessing patient care systems at the point of need and a number are used by service managers to access service performance information."