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Northern Ireland hospital waiting times sign of a workforce in crisis, claims the BMA

By Allan Preston

Published 25/11/2016

Hospital waiting times in Northern Ireland have become unacceptable and symbolise a
Hospital waiting times in Northern Ireland have become unacceptable and symbolise a "workforce in crisis," the UK's largest medical union has warned

Hospital waiting times in Northern Ireland have become unacceptable and symbolise a "workforce in crisis," the UK's largest medical union has warned.

Quarterly statistics for September 2016 show a marked increase in waiting times across key areas of hospital care.

Stand-out figures include more than two thirds (167,250) of patients waiting more than nine weeks for outpatient appointments.

There were also concerns that 40,686 (39.9%) of patients expecting diagnostic tests waited over nine weeks.

Most of the figures are still some way off targets the Health Minister Michelle O'Neill has set for the next quarter in March 2017.

Dr Anne Carson, chair of the British Medical Association Northern Ireland consultants committee said chronic under-investment was to blame.

"Patients in Northern Ireland continue to wait an unacceptably long time to see a consultant," she said.

However, she went on to praise Ms O'Neill's vision for health as "a good start in addressing some of these problems".

Margaret Carr, Cancer Research UK's public affairs manager in Northern Ireland, said: "The fact so many patients are waiting longer than six weeks for such a vital (diagnostic) test is hugely worrying and simply not good enough."

Ulster Unionist health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson said the figures showed the Executive "does not care about, or recognise the severity, of the plight local patients are being forced to endure."

The breakdown of waiting times found that for their first consultant-led outpatient appointments, more than two thirds of people - 68.8% of 167,250 patients - were waiting more than nine weeks.

That represents a rise of nearly 13,000 since the same period last year.

Almost twice as many patients waited more than a year for an appointment - 39,557 compared to 20,840 for the same time last year.

Targets for March 2017 say no more than half of patients should be waiting longer than nine weeks, and none for more than a year.

Of 70,035 inpatients and day case admissions, 39,772 (56.8%) waited more than 13 weeks - 6,791 more than last year. One in nine patients - 7,710 - waited more than a year, up from 4,998 last year.

Next year's targets say 55% of patients should wait a maximum of 13 weeks, with none waiting more than a year.

For diagnostic services, two fifths of 102,061 patients (40,686) waited more than nine weeks, compared to 31,607 last September. And 9,675 waited longer than six months for an appointment, a leap from 7,631 last September. However, 75% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a diagnostic test, with none waiting more than six months. In Northern Ireland, 85.3% of 375,911 diagnostic tests were turned around in two days - down from 89.3% last year.

Next year, the target is for all diagnostic tests to be completed in two days.

Dr Carson said the major lack of investment in the health service made the delays inevitable.

She added the health service currently has to fill 118 consultant posts here with overseas doctors due to a lack of local trainees.

"Northern Ireland has become a less attractive place for specialised consultants to work in, and together we must change this if we are to attract and keep our highly motivated and skilled consultants," she said.

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