More than one in 10 appointments were cancelled by hospitals last year, new research has found.
The statistics discussed by the Stormont health committee yesterday have revealed in startling detail that the health service in Northern Ireland is failing to deliver for patients compared to other parts of the UK.
Reasons given for the cancellations included the consultant being unavailable because they have retired, are holding a lecture, are on study leave or must attend court as an expert witness.
The highly paid consultants, some on six figure salaries, were responsible for much of the disruption and enjoyed 55 days annual leave for holidays and study. They were also delayed by urgent work like operations, health service officials said. In total, 182,813 consultant-led outpatient appointments were cancelled by health trusts in 2011/12 – equating to over 700 appointments every day.
Some of the top health service managers appeared in front of the committee and defended the figures, claiming the official statistics contained the Assembly report do not accurately reflect reality.
They claimed the recording system is "not fit for purpose" and that patients may actually be seen by a different doctor if their own consultant is unavailable.
However, they were unable to provide any idea how many times this happens and the chair of the committee, Sue Ramsey, said she believes the issue of appointments being cancelled is a "significant issue" for the health service.
"The fact is the figures we have show almost 200,000 appointments were cancelled by hospitals and that simply isn't good enough," she said.
"We accept there are occasions when cancellations are unavoidable, such as through illness, but it is unacceptable when appointments are being cancelled because a consultant has retired."
SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said he feared there are huge inefficiencies in the way the health service is being run. In particular, the committee expressed concern that cancelled appointments may be carried out by private health providers instead of health service employees.
"We need to ascertain whether we are paying twice for these appointments," Ms Ramsey said.
"We also need to find out what the impact is on patients. We must remember there are people behind these figures."
Some of the key findings in the briefing paper include:
• Belfast Health & Social Care Trust sees the most patients and cancelled the greatest number of outpatient appointments in 2011/12
• The Northern Health & Social Care Trust had the fewest hospital appointment attendances but had the highest rate of appointments cancelled by the hospital (13.5%)
• In 2011/12, patients did not turn up for 157,781 appointments with consultations – the equivalent of 432 appointments every day
• Patients cancelled in advance 184,718 appointments in 2011/12
The report stated the number of appointments being cancelled by trusts "reduce the availability of care for patients, and indicate that better strategic planning and management is required".
It also revealed that although the Health & Social Care Board and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety monitor hospital cancellation rates, as well as the number of times patients fail to turn up for appointments, no specific targets have been set to reduce the rates.