Four-month wait target for scoliosis treatment 'will be met by end of 2017'
The Health Minister has insisted a target of a four-month wait for treatment for scoliosis will be met by the end of the year.
Following a damning report by the Children's Ombudsman on delayed surgeries, Simon Harris repeated his commitment to speed up access to the life-changing operations to correct spinal curvature.
"This absolutely is a priority for me, for the Government and for the Health Service Executive (HSE) this year," he said.
"I welcome the fact that the HSE has committed that no child will wait longer than four months for such a procedure by the end of the year.
"This would bring Ireland in line with waiting times in the NHS in the UK."
New theatre capacity is being opened in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin from next month to improve access.
Niall Muldoon, Children's Ombudsman, said delays for surgery and the Government's failures to adequately address the issue is impacting on the rights of children and young people.
His report - Waiting On Scoliosis Treatment: A Children's Rights Issue - warned that it is unacceptable for young people with scoliosis to suffer severe physical and psychological effects because of delays in getting necessary medical treatment.
Scoliosis is abnormal lateral curvature of the spine.
More than 100 children have been on waiting lists for more than six months for surgery and 46 have been waiting more than a year.
Mr Muldoon said the testimonies of three children in his report made for powerful and chilling reading.
One girl, called Jane, said: " The whole waiting process made me very sad all the time. I didn't like leaving the house or looking in the mirror. I felt trapped in my own head, nobody else I knew looked like me."
Another unnamed child said: " My operation could have been much simpler and better.
"I wouldn't have been out of school for months...if they had done it a year earlier I would have been left with just a tiny scar on the middle of my back, less pain, less time recovering and have more movement in my back now."
Dr Muldoon called for the four-month deadline for surgery to begin once a clinical determination has been made that the operation is necessary.
He also called for child-specific waiting lists for all healthcare with targets for maximum waiting times for out-patient appointments and reports on these targets published every three months.
Dr Aoife Daly, senior law lecturer at the University of Liverpool, said: " Our international human rights obligations mean that the State must take into account children's best interests as a primary consideration when weighing up competing budget allocation and spending priorities.
"Children are a vulnerable group with no vote and little influence.
"Implementing the recommendations in this report, such as a national policy framework on child-friendly healthcare, would go a long way to tackling the problems in question."
The HSE said that 105 patients were treated for scoliosis in 2015 in public or private hospitals.
It said 24 patients with scoliosis were sent to Blackrock Clinic for surgery the following year, including 15 children who had been waiting more than 18 months for an operation.
Another 34 children or young adults who were under the care of medics in Tallaght Hospital were also switched to the Mater Hospital.
The HSE said O ur Lady's Children's Hospital should be able to carry out 30 more spinal fusion surgeries on children every year from this year and other teenagers and young adults can be treated in the Mater, Cappagh and Temple Street Children's University Hospital.
"Decisions about acceptance of patients by these hospitals will be made based on clinical assessment and age requirements and following review by paediatric/young adult orthopaedic surgeons in these hospitals," the agency said.
"Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, have commenced contacting families on their surgical waiting list, whose child fits these clinical and age criteria, to seek their permission to share their child's medical case details and history with the relevant hospitals."