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Escalating waiting list backlog in Northern Ireland among worst in Europe

By Victoria O'Hara

The mammoth hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland are among the worst in Europe.

There is now almost one in four of the population waiting for an appointment, treatment or tests to be carried out.

Part of the problem is that Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that is not using the private health sector to help clear hospital waiting lists.

The backlog has been compounded by the Department of Health's decision last September to pull the plug on its agreement with Kingsbridge private hospital which had been contracted to carry out procedures.

In August, Valerie Watts, chief of the Health and Social Care Board, also warned that surgery waiting times for Northern Ireland patients are set to get "significantly worse".

While England, Scotland and Wales use private companies, local commissioners said they could not afford it. There have also been huge financial constraints, with health trusts forced to wield savage workforce cuts to balance their budgets, placing pressure on performance.

Two traditional ways of tackling waiting lists have been to pay existing consultants money to work Saturdays and Sundays and bring in extra staff, or to bring in the private sector.

But health unions argue that the Department of Health should not be funding the private sector and should plough any money back into the health service.

Last week, the severity of the situation became clear when out of £48m earmarked for the Health Department, £40m would be specifically targeted at waiting lists.

This has been welcomed as a way to address the lists, but the money has to be spent by the end of the financial year which draws to a close at the end of March.

And there are questions over whether even the private sector has the capacity to get through the hundreds of thousands of people on the backlog.

As senior doctors warn there is "no quick fix", the question is will the cash boost work?

The public, like the 400,000 patients, will just have to wait, and wait and wait and see.

Belfast Telegraph


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