Shocking report also reveals 24 youngsters referred as red flag hospital cases waiting for longer than 52 weeks
More than 500 children in Northern Ireland had been waiting longer than four years for a first hospital appointment in April, shocking new figures have revealed.
A further 5,445 youngsters had been waiting between two and four years, according to the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY).
It has also emerged that 24 children who had been referred as red flag cases had been waiting longer than 52 weeks for an appointment in April this year.
Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said youngsters are living in agony, while their parents are being diagnosed with PTSD and depression as a result of Northern Ireland’s hospital list waiting shame. Ms Yiasouma has revealed that 10 children have travelled to Turkey to undergo privately funded spinal surgery over the past three years because treatment in Northern Ireland would come too late.
Meanwhile, children as young as 14 are being cared for by adult services due to a lack of theatre spaces at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
They are all findings contained in a review carried out by the commissioner, which also uncovered an apparent delay in funding a key Department of Health strategy to improve children’s services in Northern Ireland.
Referring to A Strategy for Paediatric Healthcare Services Provided in Hospitals and in the Community (2016-2026), Ms Yiasouma’s report said: “There has been no official progress update published on the Department of Health website but information sought by NICCY for the purpose of this review found some limited transformation funding to progress parts of the strategy was not made available until 2019, three years after the strategy was first published.”
The review worked with health officials to provide a comprehensive overview of the waiting times being endured by children and young people in Northern Ireland.
It showed that while waiting times were rising year on year, there has been a significant spike during the pandemic.
According to the report, 3,313 children were waiting longer than one year for a first outpatient appointment in April 2017 and this rose to 8,832 in April 2020. However, the number of children waiting longer than 52-weeks surged by April 2021 — up to 17,194 which equated to a 95% increase.
There was a similar rise in waits for inpatient treatment, with the number of children waiting longer than 52-weeks going from 741 in April 2017 to 2,581 in April last year. However, this spiked to 6,092 by April this year.
The number of children waiting several years for a first outpatient appointment has also risen steeply during the pandemic, with only two children waiting longer than four years in April 2017, increasing to 510 by April this year.
Alarmingly, 197 children were waiting longer than four years for inpatient treatment in April this year — meaning they are youngsters who have been assessed by a consultant as requiring an elective procedure.
Ms Yiasouma said: “While the impact of waiting on a red flag or urgent appointment is clear, we know that delayed access to any specialist support, whether that be for autism diagnosis or support, child and adolescent mental health, physiotherapy or speech and language, can and does have a profound impact on a child’s health outcomes, emotional and mental wellbeing, educational attainment, relationships with family and friends and quality of life more broadly.”
The review has made a series of recommendations, including calling for consideration to be given to the implementation of a deputy chief medical officer for child health — a recommendation contained in the Hyponatraemia Inquiry report which was published almost three years ago. It also raised concerns over the effectiveness of waiting time targets given the fact there are no sanctions or financial penalties imposed on trusts, despite the fact they repeatedly fail to deliver the services for which they are commissioned.
Health Minister Robin Swann, who yesterday opened a new £3m Cancer Care Unit at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, said the report and recommendations from the Commissioner will be considered carefully.
“Waiting times were clearly unacceptable prior to Covid-19 and have been exacerbated by the devastating impact of the pandemic across all aspects of service provision including, unfortunately, across children’s services.
“Addressing these waiting lists is a top priority for me, as evidenced by the new Elective Care Framework for Northern Ireland, which I published in June. It will require systemic change and long-term investment.”
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman from the Department of Health said a child health partnership manager was appointed in 2019, resulting in “good progress” being made in relation to the child health strategy published in 2016. The new Macmillan Unit at the Ulster Hospital site features a state-of-the-art chemotherapy unit with purpose-built assessment and treatment areas; a satellite pharmacy; and a Macmillan support centre.