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Alarm at 40% rise in cancelled operations in Northern Ireland

By Ann W Schmidt

Published 11/11/2016

Concerned: UUP MP Tom Elliott
Concerned: UUP MP Tom Elliott

The number of operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons in Northern Ireland hospitals has jumped by 40% in four years. The total has soared from 3,976 in 2012/13 to 5,580 in 2015/16.

Non-clinical cancellations include a lack of available and proper beds, unavailable staff, another emergency has taken priority, another operation took longer than expected, equipment isn't working or there was an administrative error.

Last year, Belfast City Hospital had 894 non-clinical cancellations and the Royal Group had 1,561 non-clinical cancellations.

UUP MP Tom Elliott expressed his concern, specifically for the South West Acute Hospital in his constituency which cancelled 157 operations over the past year.

"This 157 is not just a statistic, rather it is the lives of patients. We all are aware of the length of time many patients have to wait for operations, and the further waiting only exacerbates the stress and anxiety patients and their families face," he said.

"Many of these cancellations are often without any explanation, which no doubt frustrates many of those who are delayed even further with their procedure.

"And in some situations these cancellations are often at the last minute, and again it is exasperating for patients who are preparing themselves for the surgery." The figures were obtained by the UUP and only cover non-clinical reasons. Operations can also be cancelled because of other medical issues with the patient, like their blood count or their blood pressure.

Mr Elliott said that there should be a sense of urgency in decreasing the numbers of cancelled operations.

"Some of those people may have been waiting quite some time and all that it does is, it makes a backlog of the number waiting even longer.

"You may have some people who have been in the system or waiting in the system for 18 months, maybe for a routine orthopaedic and then, the day that they go in to prepare for the operation they're told sorry, you can't have it.

"Not only does that delay them and frustrate them, but it also adds to the waiting list. It continues to increase the waiting list and lengthens the time that people have to wait."

Mr Elliott said that when someone is given a date for their operation, they have a few weeks to prepare themselves for something they've been waiting on for months, even up to a year.

"They have cancelled appointments, they have made themselves available probably for a couple of weeks that they're going to be out of action and they've carried out a lot of preparation.

"They may have even got to the stage where they are in hospital preparing for surgery and they're told, 'oh sorry, you can't do that surgery now. You'll get it done maybe in a few weeks' time'.

"Psychologically, that is a hugely difficult situation for those people, because they've made preparations and plans.

"They have got themselves and their mindset around having the operation and then all of a sudden it's cancelled. So they have built themselves up to this process and then it's just taken from them."

Mr Elliott said the rise in cancellations highlights the crisis facing the health service. "The problems facing our health service are vast and intertwined. This means that fixing one problem can lead to benefits in other areas," he said. "Facing head-on the shortage of beds and staff shortages, which is often cited as a reason for these cancelled operations, can be done by ensuring sufficient social care packages are available in the community, therefore freeing up beds as it can reduce the number of 'delayed discharges.'

"This could allow beds available for short-stay outpatients and surgical procedures are available."

The Department of Health declined to comment, saying that cancelled operations are an "operational matter" and depend on the Trusts.

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