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Real people suffering real ailments should never be viewed as mere statistics

By Laurence White

Published 24/07/2015

Is Northern Ireland's health and social care service in a "dire" condition? No, according to Valerie Watts, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, which oversees the care provided to people here. Yes, according to the available evidence.

First let us consider some of that evidence.

The number of people waiting for more than nine weeks for their first outpatient appointment has soared from just under 40,000 to 107,000 in a year.

The number waiting more than 26 weeks - half-a-year - to get into hospital for treatment has almost trebled from 4,312 to 13,622 in the same period.

Around half of patients wait less than three months for surgery and three-quarters are seen within six months. But that leaves a quarter - many thousands of people - waiting more than six months.

This is not just "unacceptable" in the words of Ms Watts, it is shameful. These are real people with real ailments, often leaving them in terrible pain. They should not be viewed as mere statistics.

We all know as she was keen to point out repeatedly that the health and social care service provides great services day in and day out.

But that should not be allowed to mask the deficiencies in the system, a system which consumes almost half of the annual block grant every year - a total of £4.7bn. We have the worst - and by far - performance on waiting lists in the UK and it is not just good enough to say that we need more money. Yes we do, and a bid for £89m currently lies on the Health Minister's desk. Half of that will go towards measures to shorten waiting times but Ms Watts was particularly coy in revealing what the rest will be used for. She was also reluctant to really lay into the politicians at Stormont who actually hold the purse strings. People desperately waiting for treatment need her and her colleagues to publicly shame the politicians into loosening those purse strings.

For example people here are being denied any new drugs which could prolong life or ease pain because of a shortfall in funding. Yet those drugs are available elsewhere in the UK. Why should we be treated as second class in this case?

If someone has the money they can get speedy private treatment here because some consultants' contracts mean they only have to work three days a week for the NHS and can do lucrative private work on other days. Quite rightly this is one of the issues being looked at as the NHS rethinks how it provides services. It is wrong that we have a two-speed service, often provided in the same operating theatres, totally dependant on the wealth of the patient.

Ms Watts gave one illuminating answer. The NHS currently spends £12m a day on its work here. For another £2m a week it could provide 500 hip operations or 650 knee ops or employ 720 community nurses - all measures which would make a huge impact on the lives or ordinary people living in dread of never getting the treatment they need in time.

Is that too much to expect from an administration which is currently wasting almost exactly the same amount of money annually - £114m - in the impasse over welfare reform through fines imposed by the Treasury?

We need to stop understanding the obstacles that prevent us having the world class health service we deserve and start demanding that such obstacles are overcome.

Belfast Telegraph

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