MLA slams 'cruel' three-year Belfast hospital waiting times
Figures revealing that patients have been waiting more than three years for hospital appointments have been condemned as "downright cruel".
The latest quarterly statistics from the Department of Health show over 73,000 people across Northern Ireland had been waiting for a first consultant-led appointment for longer than the target of 52 weeks.
Now, figures obtained by the Ulster Unionist Party under Freedom of Information legislation, reveal that in October at least 40 patients in the Belfast Trust area were waiting over three years for appointments.
UUP health spokesperson Roy Beggs called the numbers "frightening" and warned the increased waiting times put more pressure on other services.
The statistical break down of waiting times was conducted across different departments in Belfast hospitals on October 19.
They include 10 patients who waited over three-and-a-half years (1,330 days) for neurological appointments, with nine at Belfast City Hospital and one at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Ten patients also waited over three-and-a-half years for mental health appointments at the Mater Hospital while another patient waited for more than five years (2,086 days) to be seen at Windsor House.
For immunology appointments at the Royal, a further 10 patients waited over three years (1,095 days). Vascular surgery waiting times revealed a further 10 people faced a three-year wait at the Royal.
Mr Beggs said: "These figures are frightening.
"While it has been known for some time that Northern Ireland is in the midst of its worst ever waiting times crisis, these figures are on a totally new scale.
"It is downright cruel that these patients have been forced to wait for so long, with many no doubt in debilitating pain and discomfort.
"The fact that there are 10 patients waiting for over three-and-a-half years for a neurological appointment is particularly tragic.
"There will likely be hundreds more waiting just a few weeks less."
Mr Beggs said that as well as an increased risk of patients' health deteriorating, long waiting lists heaped pressure on overworked GPs and emergency departments. He added: "Only last year, the maximum waiting time was a more tolerable target of 18 weeks when the then DUP/SF Executive increased it in a failed and disturbing attempt to reduce negative headlines in the media.
"I'm disappointed that these figures only came to light after a Freedom of Information request.
"But at least with them now in the open I hope these patients who have been waiting for so long will receive the level of care that they deserve."
A spokesperson for the Belfast Trust "fully acknowledged" that their hospital waiting times were too long in some areas.
She added: "We are very sorry that any patient should have to wait for treatment.
"Like all trusts across Northern Ireland, there is an acknowledgement that demand for services exceeds our capacity to deliver.
"While additional investment, if available, would allow us to bring waiting lists down in the short to medium-term, the only long-term answer will come through reforming the health service as set out in Delivering Together.
"We continue to review opportunities with our own staff and with the Health and Social Care Board to maximise the capacity available to us to treat patients on our waiting lists."