Nearly 200,000 people languishing in queues for more than a year to get first appointment, November figures show
Nearly one in eight people in Northern Ireland had been waiting on a hospital waiting list for longer than a year at the end of November, it can be revealed.
And in a grim warning to patients across the region, health officials have said the situation is likely to have declined further due to the impact of the most recent Covid-19 wave.
According to figures from the Health & Social Care Board (HSCB), 186,956 people were waiting longer than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment at the end of November.
An additional 68,715 people had been waiting longer than a year for surgery, while 7,755 people with cataracts had been waiting for more than a year for a first appointment at a day case procedure unit on November 30, 2021.
The figures are even more alarming given that more than 8,600 patients were removed from hospital waiting lists between September and November last year.
A special taskforce set up to help address Northern Ireland’s shameful hospital waiting list crisis will work to ensure patients are offered appointments on a regional basis while also establishing whether patients still require treatment.
Official figures have also revealed the challenges being experienced in emergency departments (EDs) in Northern Ireland.
According to statistics presented to a recent meeting of the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), 6,741 people waited longer than 12 hours in emergency departments in November last year.
This means an average of 224 people spent longer than 12 hours on a trolley in A&E every day during the month of November.
It was the third worst month for 12-hour breaches in EDs across Northern Ireland during the entire pandemic, with only the two previous months performing worse.
In total, 21,359 people waited longer than 12-hours in EDs to be treated or admitted to a ward between the start of September and the end of November last year.
Meanwhile, only 56% of people who attended EDs last November were treated and discharged within four hours.
Cancer patients have also been adversely affected by the pressures on the system and the HSCB directors were told that regionally during November 2021, only 38% of urgent breast cancer referrals were seen within 14 days. This compared to 50% the previous month.
The Board was told that where patients were not seen within 14 days during November, the longest wait was 46 days in the Northern Trust.
A performance report continued: “In addition to the requirement for social distancing in clinics which has reduced throughput by up to 20%, performance has been impacted by workforce challenges including staff vacancies, sickness absence and maternity leave.
"Trusts have also reported an increase in referrals which has not been matched by additional capacity.”
Addressing the HSCB directors, the interim director of performance management and service improvement, Lisa McWilliams, said: “The key performance challenges remain broadly unchanged with the Covid impact.
"It is still being very clear as the chair has indicated, we have moved into a new variant response so the November position very much relates to Delta.
"It would be remiss of me not to indicate that performance will, we will see it in future reports, the December and January position, has been impacted by the Omicron response due to the scale of the community transmission and the impact on staffing.”
Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew, chair of the Stormont health committee, said: “The ongoing and worsening waiting list crisis is a commentary on the state of our health and social care system.
"The Covid pandemic undoubtedly brought new challenges; however, the Department of Health needs to bring forward tangible solutions to the waiting list crisis.
"Like every other crisis across the sector, the waiting list emergency is being worsened by the chronic workforce shortage. I have been pressing the Department to come forward with a workforce strategy as a matter of urgency.”
Waiting times have risen throughout the pandemic as staff have been diverted to work in the Covid-19 response, while it has been exacerbated in recent months as a result of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Additional staff have been recruited through international recruitment campaigns and through the return of retired workers, but it has not been sufficient to plug the gap and ensure continuity of services.