NI patients face longer waits for surgery than in England
The number of patients enduring lengthy waits for some surgical procedures in Northern Ireland was higher than in England this year.
More than 10,000 people were on the list for over a year for non-urgent procedures. The equivalent in England was fewer than 4,000 people, statistics revealed.
The procedures are categorised as routine and can involve anything from removal of kidney stones to hip replacements.
A growing older population and increased demand for services was partly responsible, health service managers said.
Doctors said there was a severe shortage of healthcare staff and described efforts to deal with the problem as "sticking plasters".
The Health and Social Care Board said £30m in additional funding was made available this year.
The waiting list statistics were obtained by Ulster Unionist health spokesman Roy Beggs.
Mr Beggs said: "I really fear that the mantra of the NHS providing safe, sustainable and timely healthcare is becoming increasingly stretched."
In Northern Ireland this year, 10,118 waited more than a year, including 4,036 at Altnagelvin Hospital in the north west.
That compared to 3,464 in England, statistics from NHS England confirmed.
Mr Beggs, an MLA for East Antrim, added: "Excessive delays in patient treatment can also mean a greater likelihood of the individual coming to harm, as well as the short-term impediment in quality of life."
He said he suspected the situation here was even worse due to procedures "regularly being cancelled at the last minute as a result of the wider problems in the health service".
Lists were lengthening with every passing month, he added, blaming the suspension of Stormont power-sharing.
Dr Anne Carson, chair of British Medical Association's Northern Ireland's consultant's committee, said: "We know the number of people on waiting lists here is totally unacceptable and it shows no sign of decreasing."
She added: "Our health system is facing a range of problems including a severe shortage of doctors and other healthcare staff.
Mr Beggs said a direct rule health minister should be appointed to end the waiting time "crisis".
Dr Carson, a radiologist at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh, said: "Waiting list initiatives - where extra clinics are organised to see patients - are only sticking plasters.
"If we do not address the underlying issues of not enough staff we are still left with a system that is broken."
The Health and Social Care Board blamed staffing and funding pressures and said the fundamental cause was how services were organised.
It said additional funding was being targeted at those patients with the highest clinical priority in the first instance and thereafter to assess and treat the longest waiting routine patients.