Devastating 4 year wait to be seen by Northern Ireland hospital
The devastating reality facing people waiting for appointments in hospitals across Northern Ireland is today laid bare.
Figures released by the health trusts have revealed waits of up to four years for a first outpatient appointment are not uncommon.
Alarmingly, some patients are enduring waits of more than two years after being referred as an urgent case.
Neurology, general surgery and gastroenterology are particularly struggling to cope with demand, according to official statistics.
It means patients suspected of having conditions such as MS or Parkinson's disease, potentially life-threatening bowel or liver obstructions, and inflammatory bowel disease are waiting years to be seen.
The figures have also highlighted a postcode lottery for patients, with the wait time for a first outpatient appointment in the same specialty varying by more than three years depending on where people live.
The situation is even more depressing as patients will go on to a new waiting list for diagnostic tests after they first see a consultant, and potentially a further waiting list for surgery.
West Belfast GP Michael McKenna said: "There is no one in the health service who thinks these waits are acceptable.
"If I think a patient has cancer they would be red flagged and should be seen within two weeks but I'm already aware of people who have been referred as urgent cases actually having cancer.
"For example, there was a man who seemed to be an urgent case and he was referred to gastroenterology and at the time, the wait was 10 months.
"There were three letters sent and when he was finally seen it turned out he had bowel cancer."
The number of people waiting longer than one year for a first outpatient appointment is well documented.
The latest figures released last week by the Department of Health highlighted once again that hospital waiting times are continuing to spiral out of control.
Over a third of patients - 94,222 people - had been waiting longer than 52 weeks for their first appointment at the end of September.
The number of people waiting longer than a year for their first outpatient appointment had risen by almost 6,000 in just three months.
However, while the departmental statistics show how many people are waiting longer than government targets, the figures revealed today lift the lid on exactly how long patients can expect to wait.
GPs have frequently complained that they are not made aware of how long patients can expect to wait so they can make informed decisions about how to treat people.
The chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in Northern Ireland, Dr Grainne Doran, said the wait times are unacceptable.
She also said the figures have also highlighted the "differences and inequities for patients" depending on where they live.
Dr Doran said the wait times for people with painful and debilitating conditions is adding to the workload of already overstretched family doctors.
"As GPs, managing our patients' conditions is our central focus and referral for investigation or for treatment is an essential part of management for some," she said.
"Waiting for excessive periods of time for such investigation and treatment not only impacts on patients themselves but has significant bearing on capacity in general practice.
"The impact that waiting lists have on GP workload cannot be underestimated.
"As patients continue to suffer with various conditions and chronic pain while they await secondary care assessment, they need to access their family doctor for support.
"GP services have been stretched to their maximum.
"Despite current challenges, GPs feel additional responsibility to monitor patients and evaluate the status of their condition while on waiting lists."
She added: "Frustrated and worried patients will recurrently visit their GP looking for answers, medical treatment and support, but there is often little that the GP can do without secondary care input.
"This is frustrating for doctors as they witness ongoing conditions affect their patient's education, employment and relationships."
Dr Doran said the current model of healthcare in Northern Ireland is failing patients.
She said GPs have been working hard to develop alternative ways of treating patients in a bid to help address waiting times but said more needs to be done.
She continued: "We need to see effective, fundamental, strategic reform.
"These waiting times cannot be left unchecked or be allowed to get any worse."
Commenting on the most recent Department of Health figures last week, the Health and Social Care Board said the way the NHS currently operates, it cannot provide timely care.
A spokeswoman said: "The only sustainable solution to this is transformation."
She said additional funding is required to clear the backlog of patients waiting for treatment, on top of £30m announced earlier this year.
This money has been used to further the treatment of thousands of patients.
The spokeswoman said the development of elective care centres also have the potential to significantly improve patient access to care.
She continued: "From next month, new prototype elective care centres will undertake routine day surgery for cataracts and treatment of varicose veins.
"It is expected that the development of prototype elective care centres will have a significant impact on the number of patients treated.
"For cataracts, this could mean up to 2,000 additional treatments annually and for varicose veins this could mean up to 500 more treatments - an increase in productivity of up to 30% in both cases.
"The Department of Health has committed to moving all day case surgery to new elective care centres by December 2020."
Additional training places have also been provided from the additional funding to help address waiting lists, she added.