68 weeks - that's how long you can expect to wait to see a neurologist in Belfast
People with an urgent referral to see a neurologist in Belfast can expect to wait 68 weeks for an appointment, it can be revealed today.
This means it will be February 2020 before people currently suspected of having conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's disease will see a hospital doctor for the first time.
Meanwhile, the wait for a routine first outpatient appointment with a neurologist in the Belfast Trust is 246 weeks - three months short of five years.
The figures released by the Belfast Trust have highlighted the devastating reality facing patients who could potentially have debilitating, life-changing and even fatal neurological conditions.
It is a further blow for the struggling service, coming as health officials manage the recall of thousands of neurology patients in the Belfast Trust.
Medics are currently seeing an additional 1,044 former patients of Dr Michael Watt in the second phase of the recall.
They have already seen more than 2,000 patients in the past seven months after concerns were raised about Dr Watt's work. The scandal is also making it difficult for patients who are desperate for treatment and are unable to wait for NHS care to see a neurology specialist.
The earliest available appointment at two of the biggest private hospitals is in mid-February, while the waiting list at another clinic is six to eight months.
It comes as neurologists who work at private clinics are devoting their spare time to running recall clinics and have scaled back on private work.
With a shortage of neurologists, NHS neurology waiting lists had already been creeping upwards before the recall was announced.
Health officials have insisted the recall process is not impacting upon the waiting times for first outpatient and review appointments.
However, David Galloway, director of MS Society NI, said: "Undoubtedly the recent patient recall has put additional strain on an already stretched service and increased the workload of the dedicated MS specialists who currently hold the service together. I am concerned the recall will impact further on these waiting times.
"The Department has made assurances that first time appointments will not be made worse. The same cannot be guaranteed for review appointments.
"Simply put, many of Dr Watt's patients will ultimately need to be added to the caseload of another specialist consultant."
Mr Galloway said the current crisis being faced by neurology is bringing into sharp focus the difficulty being faced by patients waiting for appointments.
He continued: "The Department of Health announced a review of neurology back in July.
"There is much work for that review to complete in order to tackle waiting times, provide patients with the standard of service they deserve and ensure sustainable, safe working conditions for medical professionals.
"The review needs to engage directly with patients and charities and bring tangible recommendations for improvement which the Department will need to deliver on.
"This review is an important part of restoring public confidence in neurology."
Northern Ireland Director of Parkinson's UK Nicola Moore said: "We are very aware of the issues people with Parkinson's are facing in regards to long waiting lists for neurology appointments and continue to highlight our concerns.
"The stress of waiting for an appointment can exacerbate Parkinson's symptoms and cause further deterioration of the health of someone living with the condition."
Paula Bradshaw, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said the waiting times are unacceptable.
She said long-running promises made by the Department of Health to address problems in the service have not delivered for patients.
"One of my primary concerns is the emotional wellbeing of the patients on the waiting list," she said. "This, in itself, is creating further pressures on the system as conditions worsen and mental wellbeing suffers."
A spokesman from the Belfast Trust said it is working with the Health & Social Care Board to resolve the situation.
He said: "We appreciate waiting times are much longer than we would like. Across Northern Ireland there is a shortage of neurology consultants for this complex and high demand service and therefore demand is outstripping capacity."