Waiting list crisis: Patients 'could wait up to five years'
Patients face waiting substantially longer for hospital appointments under new Government targets.
Doctors' leaders have warned the waiting list crisis is so severe patients could wait up to five years to be treated in hospital from the time they see their GP.
Latest figures revealed that over 15,500 people had waited longer than five months for a first appointment with a consultant in June this year.
The statistics provide a small insight into the misery heaped on patients as the Northern Ireland NHS struggles to cope.
Until March this year, Government targets stated all patients must have their first outpatient appointment within nine weeks of being referred by their GP.
However, Health Minister Edwin Poots introduced a new target in April which allows health bosses to let patients wait much longer before getting treatment - it states that at least 50% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, and no patient should wait longer than 21 weeks.
Dr Tom Black, deputy chair of the British Medical Association (NI) GP committee, said he is concerned some patients' conditions will decline before they actually get the treatment they need.
"To be honest, I didn't actually think there was any target at the moment because things are so bad," he said. "We're already being told patients could wait up to a year for their first hospital appointment in specialties such as surgery.
"I can see it getting to the stage where patients wait a couple of years before they see a consultant and then another couple of years before they get an inpatient appointment. We need rationalisation of services."
Introducing the new target, Mr Poots said he was more interested in outcomes for patients.
But Dr Brian Patterson, a member of the BMA (NI) GP committee, said patients are being failed by the health service.
He said: "I have a young patient who has alopecia and I referred him to a dermatologist this time a year ago and he still hasn't been seen, so I chased it up and was told the waiting time is 13 months," he said.
"That is an outcome for that young man. In many cases I am having to prescribe drugs, if not to keep a patient alive until they see a consultant, to keep them symptom free."
- Total number of people waiting for a first outpatient appointment at the end of June 2011 was 117,926
- 37.9% (44,709) were waiting more than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment
- 15,561 - 13.2% - were waiting more than 21 weeks