As new figures reveal the scale of the crisis in hospital waiting lists, it can be revealed that Stormont has quietly shifted the goalposts in how it measures waiting times.
The number of people waiting more than a year for their first outpatient appointment with a consultant has just about doubled – to almost 40,000 – in a year, while the total outpatient waiting list has more than doubled in five years – up from 117,926 in 2011 to 243,141 today.
And the total number of people waiting more than nine weeks for an outpatient appointment has exploded by 274% in five years – up from 44,709 to 167,250.
However, it has also emerged that Stormont has quietly made a massive change to its outpatient waiting list targets by making them easier to achieve. Nevertheless, despite shifting the goal posts, the new targets are not being met.
In 2014-15, the ministerial target for outpatients was that by April 2014 at least 80% of patients should wait no more than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, with no one waiting more than 15 weeks. Now, that has been reduced to at least 50% of patients waiting no more than nine weeks for a first appointment, with no one waiting longer than 52 weeks by March.
That means that even if the health minister reachers her target there would still be people waiting almost a year for their first appointment with a consultant.
Dr Anne Carson, chair of BMA Northern Ireland’s consultants committee was outspoken about the figure: “Consultants know the current waiting times are unacceptable. However they are indicative of a workforce in crisis. Patients in Northern Ireland continue to wait an unacceptably long time to see a consultant.
“Huge efforts locally by doctors and other team members to address the issue are hampered because the rising demand is not met with sufficient investment and appropriate planning.”
She said that there was now an “unprecedented number of unfilled [consultant] posts throughout Northern Ireland”, adding that “Northern Ireland has become a less attractive place for specialised consultants to work in”.
However, Dr Carson said that Health Minister Michelle O’Neill’s vision for health “is a good start in addressing some of these problems” and urged the Executive to urgently deliver the recommendations of the recent Bengoa Report.
Dr Patricia McClure, Chair of Council at the College of Occupational Therapists, said that there is “a growing crisis in our hospitals”, adding that “and occupational therapists are proving they can deliver a solution”.
Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson claimed that the figures show that “the problems facing local hospitals are growing, and that the Executive’s bungled £40m funding package – of which barely half was spent as intended - has failed to reverse the spiralling deterioration in waiting lists”.
She added: “Formal targets for treatment across all patient types and specialities exist because it is accepted that the longer patients are forced to wait for treatment, the greater harm they may ultimately come to.
“The number of people who are waiting far longer than is medically safe has now grown to an unprecedented and terrifyingly high level.
“Unfortunately, rather than the local Executive recognising this, they are shamefully waiting until next January to produce a ‘comprehensive approach for addressing waiting lists’. That is despite the current crisis beginning well over two years ago.”
Yesterday a spokeswoman from the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) admitted it was “unacceptable that any patient has to wait longer than they should for an assessment or treatment”.