Patients with cancer are waiting up to 11 weeks for their first hospital appointment, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
GPs across Northern Ireland have laid bare the shocking length of time a growing number of their patients - some with deadly conditions - are waiting for treatment.
The alarming examples of waits endured by patients suffering from debilitating and possible fatal illnesses include:
Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy, a member of the Stormont health committee, said: "This is totally unacceptable and must be addressed immediately.
"We're always being told that early detection is key in cancer and yet when it is being picked up there is nowhere for patients to go. The buck stops with the health minister and the department."
Doctors said their patients live in misery waiting for treatment.
Belfast GP Dr Michael McKenna said: "It is appalling. I actually had one patient recently who waited two months for an urgent hospital appointment. They decided they couldn't wait any longer so they paid to go private.
"I subsequently received a letter from the consultant they saw who said they were ashamed of the time the patient had waited.
"As a result, they had waived their private fee and were going to deal with the patient on their health service list and would bring them in immediately.
"There is actually a running joke that the rapid access paediatric clinic is actually called the 'not so rapid' access clinic.
"This is a clinic where patients should be seen in a week or two to stop babies and children ending up in A&E. With regards to review appointments, it is actually quicker to refer your patients as a new patient. The worst thing is that we all just seem to accept this now. GPs get slaughtered when their patients have to wait longer than 48 hours to be seen yet patients are waiting longer than a year for an appointment." Dr McKenna said he was aware of cynical tactics employed by hospitals to reduce the number of people waiting for appointments.
"One consultant actually told me they sometimes don't send out appointment letters so patients don't turn up and they can then discharge them," he explained.
Doctors said the waits for hospital appointments were having a knock-on effect on surgeries.
Dr Allen McCullough from the Family Practice in Antrim said: "The difficulty is when we refer a patient we have no idea how long they are going to wait to be seen. "
Dr McKenna continued: "Patients are ringing the hospital to find out when they will be seen and the secretaries are telling them to go back to their GP and ask for another letter to be sent."
Meanwhile, Saintfield GP Dr David Ross said: "It's difficult, we are telling patients they have cancer and they're going to wait a couple of months to be seen, it doesn't go down terribly well."
Health Minister Jim Wells said he was disappointed at the most recent failure by trusts to meet waiting time targets. He said money received during the October monitoring round allowed him to make a £14m investment in elective care. "I regret that some patients are waiting longer than I would wish for assessment and treatment," he said. "However, the majority of patients waiting for a diagnostic test and for inpatient and day case treatment are still within the target waiting times."
He said hospital services continue to face considerable demand and it is essential the health system is able to respond to this.