Doctors have hit out at the spiralling cost of sending health service patients to private clinics for treatment – as it has emerged that £45m has been paid out in just 12 months.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal the waiting list crisis in Northern Ireland is so bad that children and pensioners are being treated by the independent sector – a development which has stunned health professionals.
Health trusts send patients to private clinics when they do not have the capacity to meet Government targets on waiting times for hospital treatment.
But the British Medical Association (BMA) said health bosses are relying too heavily upon private clinics and claimed patients are suffering as a result.
Dr Michael McKenna, a GP in west Belfast, said the majority of patients he has referred for hospital treatment in recent months are being seen in private clinics.
"As well as adults, I have referred four children recently and I have received letters to say they are being seen by the independent sector," he said.
"It is the first time I have seen that happen, which shows how bad things have become."
Figures provided by the Belfast Health & Social Care Trust show two children were sent to London for orthopaedic treatment in 2011/12. The trust also sent child patients to private clinics in Belfast for surgery and dental treatment.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the BMA (NI) GP committee, said: "I have never heard of a health trust referring a child to the private sector like this during my career.
"The problem with health service patients being seen in private clinics is that it tends to result in an extremely piecemeal approach.
"For example, if I refer a patient to orthopaedics and they have their procedure at a private clinic, more often than not there is no follow-up care.
"They may require physiotherapy as part of their treatment but that isn't provided by the independent sector, so they come back to me looking for their follow-up care. I then have to make a second referral for them to be seen again, which all takes time."
A spokeswoman from the Health & Social Care Board, which commissions the use of the independent sector by the health service, said the organisation "is committed to ensuring that all patients get timely access to safe and high quality care and that services are delivered in the most cost-effective way possible".
She said: "It is the expectation that trusts will undertake as much of any required additional activity in-house and will utilise independent sector providers only where in-house capacity is insufficient to meet patient demand for assessment or treatment."
The spokeswoman said the board has invested £25m over the past four years to increase the number of planned procedures carried out.
However, this is a fraction of the money it has given to health trusts so they can send patients to private clinics.
Dr Black added: "They are rewarding failure by handing the trusts more money when they can't meet their targets."
Conall McDevitt, a member of the Stormont health committee, has also hit out at the amount of money being ploughed into the independent sector.
"The fact that the Health Minister has opted to plug a gap with a quick fix by throwing money at the private healthcare sector rather than invest in resource in the health service is very worrying," he said.
The South Belfast MLA added: "The minister should be directing these much-needed extra funds back into the health service to help an already stretched health service."