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Northern Ireland waiting times ‘worst in UK’

By Lisa Smyth

One of the most senior doctors in the UK has lambasted the health service in Northern Ireland — saying patient safety is jeopardised by long waiting lists.

Dr Laurence Buckman, chair of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) GP committee, said waiting times for hospital appointments are the worst in the UK. And he said patient safety is frequently being compromised because of the long waits.

“This is very serious and the people from Northern Ireland need to know what is going on,” he said.

Dr Buckman yesterday interrupted proceedings at the annual conference of BMA (Northern Ireland) to express his concern after listening to accounts of patient care from GPs working here.

Current government targets state no patient should wait longer than 21 weeks for a first outpatient appointment.

However, an increasing number of patients are waiting up to a year before they see a hospital doctor.

At yesterday’s conference — held in Newcastle, Co Down — GPs from across Northern Ireland voiced their frustration at waiting times for hospital appointments.

And they said the treatment of some patients with suspected cancer is being delayed.

Dr Buckman said: “I find this set of debates very disturbing for two reasons.

“One is our own internal frustration, I hear these stories all over the UK but never as bad as over in Northern Ireland.

“My patients would never tolerate an eight-week wait for outpatients, absolutely not.

“Around England it would be unusual for people to wait more than 13 weeks for anything.

“People of this province don’t seem to be aware of how bad it is. I sense your frustration.

“I have been hearing this every year I have been coming to Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed, but in fact it seems to be worse than ever.

“This is about damaging patients and that worries me. Someone somewhere is not listening to doctors’ concerns.”

Dr Buckman said the problems left a “situation where patients and very seriously diseased people or those who have an annoying disease seem to be waiting an inordinate length of time”.

“The difference between the waits here and the rest of the UK needs to be brought on to the public agenda,” he added.

Doctors discussed a range of issues at the meeting, including the pressures on out-of-hours GP services, the implementation of health service reforms and a call for district nurses, midwives and

health visitors to be attached to GP practices to promote more regular face-to-face contact with doctors.

At one of the debates, it was agreed that GPs should be allowed to admit their patients to hospital without sending them to A&E, a move that would help drive down A&E waiting times.

Dr Brian Dunn (below), chair of the BMA (NI) GP committee, said: “We hear over and over again about the crisis in A&E and inappropriate attendances at A&E.

“It used to be that we would lift the phone and speak to the house officer and have a patient admitted directly to a ward.

“Then we had to phone bed managers and then the powers that be decided it would be much better to send our patients to A&E where they could be properly admitted by junior doctors.

“We need to take our patients out of A&E and allow GPs, who are experts at assessing who needs to be admitted to hospital, to make that call.

“There seems to be a belief among some people that unless you are in the College of Emergency Medicine you are not capable of dealing with anyone who is acutely ill.

“GPs can and they are experts.”

GPs made the call in response to ongoing concerns about escalating delays in A&Es, particularly in Belfast.

Last week Health Minister Edwin Poots set up a task force to specifically examine ways to drive down waiting times.

Accident and Emergency departments in Belfast have been under intense pressure since the City Hospital's A&E was closed last year.

The issue came to a head recently after a man died while waiting on a trolley in the Royal's A&E.

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