Shock figure of 400,000 people on hospital waiting list in Northern Ireland
More than one in five people in Northern Ireland is on a hospital waiting list, shock figures have revealed.
A staggering 400,000 people here are currently waiting for either a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test, an integrated clinical assessment or an inpatient treatment at hospitals across the country.
A senior doctor has warned these figures are "clearly evidence of a crisis" and warned that the use of the private sector to tackle the waiting lists was merely "a quick fix".
The latest Department of Health figures show:
- the total number of people waiting for a first outpatient appointment at the end of September 2015 was 230,625. There are a further 12,818 waiting for a clinical assessment, 90,643 waiting for a diagnostic service and 62,697 waiting for inpatient admission;
- the number of people waiting for an outpatient appointment has soared by 50% in a year;
- almost half of all people on the outpatient list have been waiting for more than 18 weeks - despite the government target that nobody should ever have to wait that long;
- the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks has soared from 28,643 to 109,721 in a year.
Health Minister Simon Hamilton said he was confident that last week's funding announcement of £48m will "kick-start" the process of getting the waiting times back to an "acceptable position".
But former Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said the situation was a "damning indictment" on how the DHSSPS is run and Mr Hamilton needs to "get a grip" of the current spiralling situation.
"This is absolutely staggering," he said.
"At a time when he was playing 'hokey cokey' and disappearing for weeks on end we have both patients and staff placed in this awful predicament."
He added: "We have to now hear how £40m is to be pumped into health but what exactly will he do? There must be confidence given back to staff if this situation is going to be addressed. It is a continuing deteriorating situation that we have - supply is not meeting demand. This has been said for several years, yet it appears that they have got heads in the sand."
Mr Hamilton said £40m of the £48m released to the department would go directly towards tackling waiting lists.
He said it will allow up to 40,000 additional assessments and between 10,000 and 15,000 additional operations and treatments to be progressed, "over and above ongoing regular Trust activity".
"Already, patients are being contacted to attend appointments for hip and knee operations, spinal procedures and urology for example," said Mr Hamilton.
"It is the start of a long journey to get waiting times back to an acceptable position and will need further additional funding to ensure success, but we are beginning to head in the right direction."
But Dr George O'Neill, a GP and former adviser to senior health officials, described this as just a "quick fix".
He said: "They cut off the money to the independent treatments. The £40m has to be spent by the end of the financial year.
"I doubt if the private sector has the capacity to spend it all in that time.This is not a long-term solution; we really have to look at the whole system, the whole pathway of the patient from the GP into secondary care and out again and think of different ways of doing things in diagnostics to be dealt with outside hospitals."
He added: "We are almost getting back to the bad old days of 15 years ago - it was horrendous. We haven't reached that yet, but we are on our way there."