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'No quick fix' for hospital waiting lists as numbers climb further


Dr Michael McKenna

Dr Michael McKenna

Dr Michael McKenna

Northern Ireland's hospital waiting lists are continuing to spiral out of control - with more than 117,000 patients waiting more than a year for their first appointment.

The latest official statistics have confirmed fears that waiting times in Northern Ireland have deteriorated in recent months.

However, a west Belfast GP has warned figures could rise significantly in the coming months as an increasing number of patients seek medical attention as the threat from Covid-19 decreases.

Meanwhile, the Health Minister has also sounded a grim warning that waiting lists are likely to increase further with future statistics predicted to make for "depressing reading".

A total of 307,066 patients were waiting for a first outpatient appointment at the end of March - up from 305,017 at the end of last year. Of these, a staggering 242,864 people had been waiting longer than nine weeks for their first hospital appointment and 117,066 had been referred at least 52 weeks before.

However, the figures do not reveal the gravity of the situation as they do not capture the length of time patients are waiting more than a year or the full patient journey.

Dr Michael McKenna, whose surgery is located on the Falls Road, said: "GPs have been seeing fewer patients during the pandemic.

"This is a combination of them not wanting to put additional strain on the health service and also being frightened to come to healthcare settings. Emergency departments (EDs) have seen a similar drop in attendances, so it's likely that referral rates during the pandemic have dropped.

"As more people start coming into their GP and going to ED, referral rates are going to increase again and the numbers may be quite significant," Dr McKenna added.

Health bosses are continuing with efforts to address waiting times, which have become a critical concern in recent years.

They are undertaking a review of waiting lists, with patients being contacted to establish whether they still require a hospital appointment after waiting for several years.

Dr McKenna said it is vital that a system is put in place to ensure patients are not missing out on important appointments.

"When you have patients waiting two or three years for an appointment, they can move on or change their telephone number," he said.

"It would be a good idea if a centralised system was set up to allow patients to inform the health service of a change in contact details so that all healthcare professionals can access those when required. It would help to stop patients missing out on appointments."

Commenting on the statistics released yesterday, Health Minister Robin Swann described them as "very disappointing but not unexpected".

Tackling the waiting list crisis was a key priority for Mr Swann when he took up the post of Health Minister, but his attentions were quickly diverted to leading the Covid-19 response for the NHS in Northern Ireland.

He said: "No one has been in any doubt that performance in this area has been under intense pressure for some time, although steps were being taken to build capacity whilst implementing new, innovative ways of working.

"The onslaught of coronavirus is something that we could never have contemplated when we started the transformation of Health and Social Care, and the truth is that today's statistics only cover the position to the end of March, so simply provide an early indication of the full impact of the virus on waiting times.

"I need to be very honest and signal that the figures for the next quarter, when published, will make even more depressing reading. But, just as there was no doubt about the scale of the challenge before coronavirus, equally no one can be in any doubt that a quick fix is simply not realistic.

"Successfully attacking these waiting times will take time and money, and can only be achieved if additional long-term funding is made available - such funding must be over and above that needed to run existing services.

"I have been very clear on this point since taking up post. Even with significant additional investment, the task of putting this right will be immensely challenging. For the foreseeable future, we will have to plan around the continuing threat posed by Covid-19.

"This will severely constrain the capacity of our hospitals to scale up activity - social distancing in hospitals means reduced numbers in waiting rooms and on theatre lists."

The latest waiting times have prompted the British Medical Association to renew its calls for reconfiguration of services.

Belfast Telegraph