Patients can wait over three years to see consultant in Northern Ireland, claims GP
Patients with conditions such as incontinence and kidney stones are waiting more than three years to see a consultant, it has been claimed.
They then face further indefinite waits for tests, treatment and operations.
A Co Down GP has hit out at the excessive wait being endured by patients living with painful and debilitating conditions.
Dr David Ross, who works in a GP practice in Saintfield, said he has been told non 'red flag' urology referrals - patients not suspected of having cancer - can expect to wait 160 weeks for a first outpatient appointment.
He said the problem is not isolated to the South Eastern Trust, where he works, and is putting additional stress on an already overstretched health service.
"For example, I was working in the GP out-of-hours service recently and I took a call one night from a lady who was waiting for gall bladder surgery," he said.
"She was in a lot of pain, had already been waiting 12 months for surgery and had been told it would be another six or 12 months before it would be done.
"Here is someone who is using the out-of-hours service or ending up in A&E and then being admitted and spending days in a hospital bed, costing the health service more money in the long run, when the most sensible thing would be just to operate.
"This is general surgery but there are other specialties, such as urology, where the wait time is 160 weeks.
"Urology waiting times are dreadful, but other specialties like cardiology and paediatrics are also bad."
Meanwhile, Dr Michael McKenna, a GP from west Belfast, said he has recently been told orthopaedic patients can wait up to two years for a first hospital appointment.
"However, they can then wait a further two years for operations, including hip and knee replacements.
"Waiting list delays remain totally unacceptable and are only continuing to grow in the current political impasse", he said.
"This cannot be allowed to continue."
Dr Ross said GPs are frequently left trying to care for patients languishing on waiting lists for years.
"We are being slaughtered by the increased workload because we have to try and manage these patients' conditions while they are on the waiting list and we are spending a lot of time chasing up appointments," he said. "They may be low risk conditions for the patients, but they are painful and distressing and conditions that you don't want to have."
Just last month, the former Health Minister Michelle O'Neill unveiled a plan to address the waiting list crisis, requiring a £31m cash injection.
Ms O'Neill said she hoped it would mean that by March 2018, no-one would wait more than a year for a first hospital appointment and surgery.
However, given the current political situation, it is not known whether the £31m required will be made available.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The plan does not focus solely on hospitals, but takes into account all of our health and social care services working together to transform the delivery of care.
"Part of this will involve maximising hospital capacity through innovations such as specialist elective care centres for treatment and the further development of ambulatory assessment and treatment centres, but it is also about making better use of the skills of our primary care professionals and doing more outside the hospital setting."