Rise in hospital waiting times 'unacceptable', health chiefs say
A rise in hospital waiting times has been described as "unacceptable" by health chiefs.
New figures show increasing numbers of patients waiting more than a year for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment or to be admitted for hospital treatment.
A spokeswoman from the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) said: "It is unacceptable that any patient has to wait longer than they should for an assessment or treatment.
"Ensuring that patients have access to safe, quality and timely care remain a key priority."
Increasing elective waiting times have been attributed to a spike in demand due to the ageing population which has not been matched with funding or other resources.
Higher patient expectations and improvements in technology mean people are also now living and managing more conditions.
The spokeswoman added: "Whilst there had been a marked improvement in elective waiting times between December 2015 and March 2016 as a result of additional funding made available during that period, this was always going to be a short-term measure only.
"Demand for elective care services currently exceeds health service capacity by over 60,000 new outpatients and almost 35,000 inpatient/daycase treatments annually."
Data released by the Department of Health show that at the end of September 243,141 patients were waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment - up a 7.8% on figures from June and a 5.4% rise on the same time last year.
Ministerial targets state that at least 50% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, with no one waiting longer than 52 weeks.
There were also lengthy queues for hospital treatment with 70,035 patients awaiting admission - 0.3% less than in June but up 11.7% on 2015.
This compares with ministerial targets which state 55% of patients should wait not longer than 13 weeks and no delay should exceed a year.
Last month Health Minister Michelle O'Neill unveiled a 10-year road map to transform Northern Ireland's under-pressure health service.
The Stormont blueprint was the response to an independent analysis of the struggling system by a panel of experts.
Although hospital closures are not envisaged in the action plan, there will be a reconfiguration of the services provided by the network of existing facilities to include specialist centres for elective procedures,
The HSCB spokeswoman said efforts were being made to address the problem.
She added: "In order to minimise the increase in waiting times, the HSCB has allocated the limited amount of additional funding that is currently available for elective care in 2016/17 to enable Health and Social Care Trusts to undertake additional in-house outpatient and inpatient/daycase activity. This funding has been targeted at those areas where additional activity will have the greatest impact in addressing patient safety issues and long waiting times.
"HSC Trusts continue to prioritise the most urgent patients to ensure they are seen and treated as quickly as possible and the HSCB is working with Trusts to maximise the activity that can be delivered from existing capacity.
"The HSCB is also currently working with the Department of Health on a range of options aimed at reducing elective waiting times and delivering sustainable improvements in the medium to longer term across all specialties."