Why waiting room seats were empty: lack of consultants means 80,000 cancelled appointments
Health bosses in Northern Ireland have been told to explain why 80,000 hospital appointments here were cancelled in the past year because consultants were not free to see patients.
Shock statistics released by the Department of Health revealed that a staggering 383,039 appointments were cancelled by both hospitals and patients in 12 months — the equivalent of 1,500 each working day.
There have been warnings that the huge wastage caused by missed appointments is putting an unbearable strain on the NHS in Northern Ireland which is already facing huge budget cuts.
And it has been claimed that the situation will get much worse because of a current recruitment freeze on consultants.
The huge total of missed appointments included almost 180,000 cases where patients simply failed to turn up. But more worrying was the total of almost 200,000 appointments cancelled by the hospitals themselves, suggesting a crisis in the waiting list system.
This included nearly 50,000 appointments cancelled because consultants were not available to see patients. An additional 28,176 appointments were cancelled by the consultant. It is understood that in a number of the cases the consultants were covering other clinics, off ill or on holiday.
There were another 11,498 cases of administrative error by the hospital or GP and more than 300 appointments were cancelled because hospital transport was not available.
GP and Stormont Health Committee member Dr Kieran Deeny said health bosses must provide an explanation for the figures: “I’m absolutely outraged. It is just impossible for such a high number of appointments to be cancelled because staff are sick or because of annual leave.
“It is possible that trusts are simply making too many appointments for consultants to be able to see all the patients in order to meet waiting list targets for first outpatient appointments.
“Another factor is a lack of consultants. It is the case that in some specialties there is a severe shortage of consultants in Northern Ireland, for example we don’t have enough urologists in the Western Trust. Consultants are retiring or leaving their posts and they aren’t being replaced.”
Dr Deeny continued: “This proves the waiting list system is a mess. It is even more alarming given the fact that an increasing number of patients are waiting months and months, and even over a year, for an appointment.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t have a patient complaining to me about the length of time they are waiting for a hospital appointment. This situation must be addressed urgently and I will be calling for the trusts to come to the health committee and explain how it has arisen.”
A leading doctors’ union has warned the situation will become worse as trusts continue a recruitment freeze in order to save money. A spokeswoman from the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland said: “BMA once again states that more consultants are needed in the Northern Ireland medical workforce to treat patients. The current recruitment freeze will only exacerbate the problem.
“There is no detail given in this document as to why these appointments were cancelled, although some cancellations are likely to be due to consultants taking annual leave to which they are entitled.
“Consultants are generally required to submit leave requests a minimum of six weeks in advance, which should give the trust sufficient time to reschedule clinics or appoint locum cover.”
A total of 1.5 million patients were seen at consultant-led services within hospitals in Northern Ireland in the past year.