MRI scandal: 2,000 wait months for vital scans at Northern Ireland's hospitals
Hundreds of adults and children are being forced to wait more than six months for vital scans at Northern Ireland's biggest hospitals, new figures reveal.
Patients in Belfast - many in excruciating pain - are being plunged into a "waiting limbo" for a crucial MRI test to either get a diagnosis or the all-clear. All scans should be performed within nine weeks according to government targets, but currently more than 2,000 people have been waiting over two months for a scan in the Belfast Trust.
Described as "unacceptable" by a leading doctor, the figures provided to the Belfast Telegraph show:
- 783 have been waiting up to nine weeks
- 620 up to 13 weeks
- 280 up to 21 weeks
- 120 up to 26 weeks
- And 264 have been waiting for more than 183 days to get an MRI scan.
At the Royal Victoria Hospital - which has two scanners - there are currently 152 children under 14 and 112 adults waiting more than 26 weeks to have the vital test. Around 230 scans are carried out every week.
Evening and weekend scanning are also carried out when possible - but the trust, which says it is "unhappy" with the waiting lists, is struggling to cope.
The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children is the only specialist children's hospital in the UK that doesn't have an MRI scanner which can be used to speed up the diagnoses of serious illnesses such as cancer.
A new scanner is due to be installed at the Children's Hospital at the end of May following a three-year charity appeal that raised £2m.
Until it has been delivered children, face a 26-week wait to use the adult machine. However, the problem is widespread across Northern Ireland. Government figures for the end of September 2014 showed 2,929 people across the region were waiting longer than nine weeks.
Dr John O'Kelly, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland, said the waiting not only affected physical health but also had a psychological impact.
"It is frustrating for the patients who are in this waiting limbo and many of them are in pain," he said.
"There is also the psychological effects it has on people waiting for tests not knowing what is wrong. Often these tests are very important to diagnose what is wrong and also to rule out important diagnoses.
"Certainly it delays treatment for a patient and that is not a good thing. People accept that they have to wait for tests but there are limits to what people should have to go through - and six months is just not acceptable."
A Belfast Trust spokesman said: "The trust is unhappy with the current length of time that patients have to wait for their MRI scan. In order to reduce these times we have introduced evening and weekend scanning whenever possible.
"In addition to this the HSCB have provided funding to enable some patients to have scans done sooner by working with independent sector."
‘I’m in pain and waiting is a nightmare’
Frances Downey is waiting for an orthopaedic appointment following her heart transplant.
I’m recovering from a heart transplant and I had been suffering with a severe pain in my leg from August.
I was finally referred by my GP, originally for a CAT scan in November in Belfast but it was decided a MRI scan was needed instead. I was put on a waiting list but told in December that it would be months before I could get an appointment — in February — but I said I couldn’t face that wait. Because of the worry I eventually rang the Trust up directly myself and they put me on a cancellation list.
Last Thursday I got a call and had one hour to get to the City Hospital. They then found out I had a number of conditions and now have to be referred to an orthopaedic surgeon — but that will take months of waiting for an appointment. I know there are people waiting longer for scans — months longer — but when you are in excruciating pain every day and after a heart transplant waiting is just a nightmare. I had been through so much after getting a new heart.
I have to fly over to Newcastle for regular check-ups with a team of doctors there because they need to make sure my body won’t reject my heart. But because of the pain I couldn’t drive and I had to depend on other people. I was having falls in the house. When I went to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle on December 20 it took six people to lift me onto the table due to the pain. If I hadn’t been persistent and called the Trust who knows how much longer I would have had to wait.
Each day that went on I was stuck in the house because I couldn’t walk. When I did I felt it was making my leg worse. It is not right that anyone should be going through unnecessary pain like that. I know there are many people waiting for scans but the whole situation has been so stressful and waiting weeks and months to find out a diagnosis fills you with anxiety which is very dangerous for a heart transplant patient.