Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland health service 'at point of collapse' as waiting lists hit record high

Warning as new figures reveal critical state of health service

Members of the Unison trade union began strike action over unsafe staffing levels and the lack of pay parity with NHS workers across the rest of the UK.
Members of the Unison trade union began strike action over unsafe staffing levels and the lack of pay parity with NHS workers across the rest of the UK.

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's health service is at critical level, with some of the most seriously ill patients waiting years for life-changing treatment, it has been warned.

The stark claims come as official figures revealed 108,582 people were waiting longer than a year for a hospital appointment.

That accounted for over a third (35%) of the total number of patients - some 306,000 on hospital appointment waiting lists in Northern Ireland in September.

The 306,180 total is an all-time high for Northern Ireland, increasing by 8% in the last year.

Meanwhile, according to Health and Social Care Board statistics, the number of people waiting longer than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment rose by more than 3,000 in just three months between June and September.

At the same time, the number of people waiting longer than a year for surgery has risen from 22,638 to 25,279.

The situation has become so serious in the last year that thousands of patients across Northern Ireland have been forced to pay for treatment for debilitating and agonising conditions.

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The devastating toll of Northern Ireland's waiting list crisis comes as the health service here is facing the biggest walkout by staff in its history.

Industrial action by all health service staff, except doctors, over the coming months is likely to bring the service to its knees.

Figures released by the Department of Health follow the publication of waiting time statistics by the Health and Social Care Board.

Government targets require that no patient should wait longer than 52 weeks for treatment.

Northern Ireland's waiting times targets have changed often over the years.

Using the targets in force at each quarter in recent years, the 52-week target has not been met in more than 12 years.

Mark Jones from the Royal College of Surgeons said: "Northern Ireland's healthcare system is at the point of collapse.

"These distressing figures tell a story of real people waiting far longer than is acceptable for the treatment they urgently need.

"Patients in the worst affected areas of surgery are waiting up to four years for their first appointment.

"Cancer targets are being missed, and one in four cancer patients are receiving their diagnosis in an emergency department.

"Our colleagues across health and social care are all agreed that the waiting times we have seen over the last few years are totally unacceptable.

"We are working tirelessly in very challenging conditions, but without political support and the required funding to bring about the changes needed, it will be not be possible to fix these enduring problems."

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Dr Anne Carson from the British Medical Association slammed politicians' failure to act to end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of patients.

"It's no secret that our waiting lists are the worst in the UK and growing, yet our politicians continue to do nothing to resolve this," she said.

"We are now approaching another busy winter period and morale among doctors is at an all-time low.

"No doctor wants to work in a system, hospital or speciality that is under so much pressure, where the issues seem overwhelming - it's not fair on doctors, health service staff and it's certainly not fair on the patients."

A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said: "The causes of the continuing growth in waiting times are well documented.

"The solutions, however, are extremely challenging.

"They require sustained investment to address backlogs and build our workforce - as well as the radical reshaping of the services.

"Demand for care has continued to increase, steadily outstripping the ability of the system to meet it.

"The department has publicly apologised to all those waiting too long for appointments and treatment.

"It reiterates that apology today," the DoH spokeswoman added.

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