The depth of the crisis in Northern Ireland's health service is starkly revealed in our exclusive reports on lengthening waiting lists. It shows a system bursting at the seams, unable to cope adequately with the demands being placed on it and, inevitably in some cases, jeopardising the wellbeing of its patients.
hile fluctuations in the numbers of those waiting longer than the government prescribed period of 15 weeks for a first outpatient appointment are not uncommon, it is startling, and quite dismaying, that the waiting list here has quadrupled in the last 12 months.
These are people who their GPs believe require the attention of hospital specialists. It is unacceptable that more than 40,000 such people are having to wait nearly four months for their first outpatient appointment. They will then have to join another list for treatment unless their condition is deemed so serious that they require immediate hospitalisation.
Faced with a list of statistics, it is easy to forget that each number represents a real person who has to live with the dread of the unknown until they get a specialist appointment. Indeed many will find that their condition will deteriorate or they will have to endure chronic pain or discomfort until they finally get treatment.
As ever the lack of funding is put forward as the primary cause of the spiralling waiting lists. Yet the Department of Health consumes by far the largest portion of the Northern Ireland budget and in the draft budget recently published is promised an extra £200m in funding for frontline services. And it should also be remembered that Northern Ireland spends more on health per head of the population than any other region in the UK.
While not denying that there are serious financial pressures on the system, it is also evident that there should be an examination to see if current procedures are as efficient as they should be. The health service is given a primary position in budgetary allocation because its role is literally one of life and death. In return the public and those using the services expect them to be as effective as possible.
Questions that are often asked, but rarely answered unequivocally include - are there too many layers of expensive management? Are hospital services properly configured and are staffing levels in key departments adequate to cope with demand? The evidence points strongly to failings in management of the system as well as funding shortages.
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