Belfast Telegraph

People are dying in pain, without ever making it to top of the list

Patients are waiting a long time for a hospital appointment... and ministers are not at Stormont to act
Patients are waiting a long time for a hospital appointment... and ministers are not at Stormont to act

By Lisa Smyth

Another day and another set of figures that shine a light on the shame that is Northern Ireland's hospital waiting lists.

The number of patients waiting over a year for a first outpatient appointment has passed 100,000.

But is anyone really surprised?

Over the years, as bed capacity has reduced, funding has been cut and an insufficient number of health professionals have been trained, the ability of the health service to cope with demand has been adversely affected.

Add to that a growing ageing population living with more chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increasing expectations and ever improving technology, every part of the health service is struggling to deliver.

Now, with no politicians in place to deliver reform or rubberstamp budgets, the situation is reaching crisis point.

Successive quarterly reports from the Department of Health have shown that waiting times for outpatient, inpatient and diagnostic appointments have been creeping gradually up.

Depressingly, health professionals have been warning we are heading for a perfect storm for as long as I can remember. In March 2012, I sat in a conference suite at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Co Down, and watched one of the most senior doctors in the UK interrupt proceedings to express his horror at waiting times in Northern Ireland.

Dr Laurence Buckman, the then chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee, said: "My patients would never tolerate an eight-week wait for outpatients, absolutely not.

"Around England, it would be unusual for people to wait more than 13 weeks for anything.

"People of this province don't seem to be aware of how bad it is. I sense your frustration.

"I have been hearing this every year I have been coming to Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed, but in fact it seems to be worse than ever.

"This is about damaging patients and that worries me. Someone, somewhere is not listening to doctors' concerns.

"This is a situation where patients and very seriously diseased people or those who have an annoying disease seem to be waiting an inordinate length of time."

It was a grim assessment of the health service in Northern Ireland, but a quick look at statistics will reveal how the situation has deteriorated since then.

In March 2012, 28,277 people had been waiting longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment. At the same time, the number of people waiting over 21 weeks for a first outpatient appointment stood at 5,903.

Fast forward to the most recent official figures and it is clear that Dr Grainne Doran, the chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, is correct when she describes current waiting times as "abysmal".

According to Department of Health figures, 288,754 patients were waiting longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment in March this year.

That is a jump of more than 921% in the last seven years.

The figures are shocking, but you need to look beyond the figures and think about the suffering behind them to appreciate how devastating the situation is.

Last December, the Belfast Telegraph provided a comprehensive guide to hospital waiting times and a warning that some people are waiting up to a decade for hospital treatment.

People no longer express shock or horror at waiting two, three or even four years for a hospital appointment - it has become the norm, but for a lot of people, the situation is intolerable.

As they wait for treatment for a painful and debilitating condition, they may be admitted multiple times to hospital.

An increasing number are becoming addicted to painkillers to manage their condition, many slipping into a dark depression.

Some even pay for operations so they can return to work, others raid their life savings just so they don't have to live in agony.

From my perspective, there have been quite a few occasions in recent years when my husband and I have been forced to pay for private healthcare.

The most recent of these saw my 40-year-old husband pay more than £200 to see a doctor as he was crippled by arthritis and unable to work and we were told the wait for an NHS appointment was 127 weeks.

We were lucky - we were able to cover the cost.

The most distressing part of this is the fact that there are people who are dying in pain and discomfort, having never made it to the top of the waiting list.

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