Research queries how planned £700m cost will be funded
New research into Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting lists has highlighted a “lack of clarity” over how money is to be spent tackling the crisis.
The most recent figures released in June 2021 show 184,000 people in Northern Ireland were waiting more than a year for a first hospital outpatient appointment.
A further 66,000 patients were waiting more than a year for surgery or another form of treatment in hospital, while 48,000 were waiting more than six months for a hospital appointment after being referred by their doctor for further tests.
The waiting lists are the worst in the UK.
Last June, Health Minister Robin Swann announced details of a new £700m “roadmap” to address the huge waiting lists over the next five years.
Mr Swann said the crisis had been building up for seven years and had been “seriously exacerbated” by the Covid-19 pandemic and added there were no “quick fixes”.
“The time for talk is over. What we need now is concerted action,” Mr Swann said.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy last month unveiled the Northern Ireland Executive’s draft 2022-25 budget he said would prioritise health and social care.
Mr Murphy said the draft proposed additional resources to ensure the bids for elective care waiting lists, cancer and mental health rebuild strategies are “met in full”.
“A health budget of £21bn over the next three years provides a long-awaited opportunity for long-term planning, reforming service delivery, and tackling waiting lists on a sustainable basis.”
He added the Department of Health would see their budget increase by more than 10pc by the end of the period.
However, a new research document prepared for the Northern Ireland Assembly health committee, which scrutinises the department’s work, states it “remains unclear” where the money for the waiting list “roadmap” will come from.
Such documents are compiled to provide committee members with up-to-date information on issues they are dealing with.
The new research has the title The unhealthy state of hospital waiting lists: What we know, don’t know, and need to know.
It states the pandemic has made already lengthy waiting lists for elective care “even longer”.
“It has also compelled the health care system to work in a different way,” the report adds.
“However, much is still not known about waiting lists, and many gaps in the data exist — such as the piecemeal reporting of elective
care waiting times and the lack of clarity around funding, in particular, where funds are being allocated and if those decisions represent value for money.
“It is also well recognised that there needs to be a radical overhaul of health care services in Northern Ireland more widely and a strategic approach required longer term to address waiting lists.”
The document states whilst “underfunding is one of many reasons for patients waiting longer”, there are other reasons.
“Furthermore, two elective care plans have been developed in the last four years.
"The most recent, the elective care framework, is subject to a commitment of resources from the Northern Ireland Executive.
“In terms of transparency, it is imperative that data is made available and the committee for health receives robust and regular evidence of the progress in implementing the new elective care framework.
“Furthermore, given the scale of the waiting times issue, it is unlikely that waiting times will be at a satisfactory level for a considerable time to come.”
The research document was published on December 10.
In it, the authors stated they had asked the Department of Health a series of questions on the funding of waiting lists but did not receive a response prior to publication.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health told the Sunday Independent the requested information was provided to the authors on December 15.