Belfast Telegraph

GPs to call for a minister to tackle Northern Ireland health crisis

Study: economist John Appleby
Study: economist John Appleby

By Lisa Smyth

Family doctors are set to debate the likely effects of Brexit on the local health service.

GPs will discuss "the lack of consideration towards the healthcare needs of the population" by politicians throughout the Brexit process at a conference this weekend.

The agenda for the event also calls for the "immediate appointment of an accountable and responsible minister of health to address the crisis that is unique to the NHS in Northern Ireland".

The local health service is facing a series of challenges because of the suspension of power-sharing.

Uncertainty over budgets and the absence of a health minister to rubber-stamp vital changes to the way to the health service is run are among the factors contributing to the deepening crisis.

Hospital waiting lists are growing, emergency medical services are struggling to cope with demand and crucial community services, such as dentists and pharmacists, are coming under huge pressure.

Meanwhile, thousands of nurses are preparing to strike next month after failing to reach an agreement with health bosses over their pay and conditions.

Family doctors meet every year to discuss a range of concerns about the health service.

Items on the agenda this weekend include the need for clarity over the future of the Health and Social Care Board.

Also up for discussion will be calls for the Department of Health to protect foreign doctors working in Northern Ireland after Brexit, and the campaign to have a medical school opened in Londonderry.

The conference comes after health economist John Appleby spoke out about local waiting lists and compared them to the rest of the UK.

In a report for the British Medical Journal, Mr Appleby referred to the fact that, in June, just over 1,000 patients had been waiting longer than a year across all outpatient and inpatient pathways in England.

He compared that to Northern Ireland, where one in five people are currently on a waiting list.

"Waits for some patients in Northern Ireland can be extremely long," Mr Appleby explained.

"At the Western Health and Social Care Trust, for example, patients with an orthopaedic upper limb problem face a potential maximum wait of nearly five and a half years for their first outpatient appointment. They then have the prospect of a further four or more years if they need to be admitted for surgery."

The economist also referred to emergency waiting times and said that hospitals in Northern Ireland had not met their targets since 2012.

"Currently, about a third of accident and emergency patients in Northern Ireland wait longer than four hours," Mr Appleby added.

While he acknowledged that demand had increased in recent years, he also stressed that that was not the sole reason for climbing waiting lists.

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