230 hospital appointments a day cancelled due to staff shortages in Northern Ireland
Hospitals are cancelling 230 appointments every day because of staff shortages.
New figures reveal the devastating impact that Northern Ireland's under-staffed health system is having on frontline patient care.
In the last year, hospitals put off more than 150,000 outpatient appointments - around one in 10.
Almost 60,000 were postponed because doctors and nurses were unavailable.
Thousands of others were lost due to administrative blunders within the system.
In many cases, appointments will have been cancelled at just a few minutes' notice.
Patricia McKeown from the health workers' union Unison said: "You cannot live with six or seven years of budget cuts without pressure on the system. We are well below the level of doctors and nurses that we should have."
A report published by the Department of Health reveals:
- Hospitals cancelled 153,498 appointments in the 12 months to April - 9.2% of all appointments;
- In 52,633 cases it was because a consultant was not available;
- In 6,024 cases it was because nurses or other medical staff were not available;
- In 17,786 cases it was because of an administrative error by the hospital or GP;
- Consultants cancelled a further 12,781 appointments;
- A total of 136,899 appointments were lost during the same 12-month period because patients did not turn up.
The 58,657 appointments cancelled because of staff unavailability equate to 225 a day based on the Monday to Friday working week.
Ms McKeown, who is Unison's regional secretary, said the issue must be urgently examined.
"We need to urgently get to the bottom of why there are 60,000 cancelled appointments as a consequence of staff not being there," she added.
"This has a huge impact on patients - a lot of these cancellations will have happened while people were in situ, in a hospital waiting room."
Ms McKeown said a longer term strategy was now urgently needed to tackle the crisis. "How the system is dealing with this is, in my view, a very short-term, reactive way," she said.
"We are using too many agencies and are too reliant on banking staff."
Some 24,712 appointments were cancelled in the Belfast Trust - Northern Ireland's largest health trust - due to unavailable staff.
A further 9,060 were cancelled in the Northern Trust and 8,142 in the South-Eastern Trust.
The Southern Trust saw 7,034 cancelled appointments due to lack of staff, while 9,679 were put off in the Western Trust. SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan said the situation could worsen.
"These startling figures indicate a serious lack of capacity within the health service and one that is only going to get worse unless significant long term measures are put in place," he said.
"With almost 60,000 appointments cancelled due to the unavailability of doctors and other specialists, it is clear that our focus must shift to training more doctors and, vitally, ensuring that they stay and work here."
Mr Durkan added that many of the patients affected are living in chronic pain. "Behind these figures are people, many of whom have been waiting years for serious procedures and many are living in chronic pain," he said.
In addition to hospital cancellations, a further 136,899 appointments were missed because patients didn't turn up, while patients themselves also cancelled 190,294 appointments during 2015/16.
The report shows growing demand on our health service.
There were 607,858 inpatient and day case admissions to hospital in 2015/16 - up 0.3% on the previous year.
Despite that rise, in the last five years, the average number of available beds fell by 8.5%, from 6,034 to 5,887.