Some spinal patients have no hope of ever having a specialist treat their pain, it is claimed, as waiting lists are over two years and rising by four weeks every month.
Information on the waiting lists came to light in a letter from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust regarding a Fermanagh man who had been referred for specialist spinal assessment.
The patient’s case was assessed as “routine” but the trust said it was impossible to say when he might actually be treated due to the worsening situation.
“Regrettably, the current waiting time for routine spinal appointments is 110 weeks and rising in four-weekly increments each month, therefore, it is very difficult to predict when exactly the patient will be appointed,” said the letter from the Public Liaison Service of the trust.
“Unfortunately, capacity in Musgrave Park Hospital spinal service does not meet the current demand for services. This is despite additional clinics being set up by spinal consultant colleagues.
“We are very sorry for the delay but can also advise that we are required to prioritise urgent patients first to ensure patients with the greatest clinical need are seen first.”
The letter encouraged the patient “to attend his GP for ongoing pain management”, and in the meantime to contact it again if his condition worsens.
UUP Fermanagh and South Tyrone Assembly candidate Alastair Patterson said the information emerged in response to a query on the care of a patient who has already been waiting from last May for a spinal appointment.
“It was revealed that the current waiting time for routine spinal appointments is 110 weeks and rising in four-weekly increments each month,” he said.
“In addition we have been told once again that capacity in Musgrave Park Hospital spinal service does not meet the current demand for services.
“It is wholly unacceptable that people waiting for a spinal appointment have to wait over two years, but the revelation that the delays are deepening by four weeks every month raises the prospect that some patients might never be seen.
“Delays in spinal treatment only leads to patients coming to harm as the chronicity will often increase. It is shameful that the only support offered by the local health service to constituents is a bland encouragement to attend their GP for ‘ongoing pain management’.”
It appears the NHS is now prepared to tolerate rather than treat pain by actually referring patients to general practice, he said. But this is also “an unparalleled crisis in terms of demand” as it is clear that there is “absolutely no logic or long-term plan being implemented to support patients through the current extraordinary situation facing our local NHS”.
The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust confirmed to the News Letter that “regrettably” the current waiting time for routine spinal appointments is 110 weeks. But while it had told the patient that the waiting list was getting incrementally longer, it told this newspaper that the waiting times would be cut.
“We are extremely sorry for the extended delay that routine patients are experiencing however the demand for spinal appointments exceeds the capacity available within the trust,” a spokeswoman said.
“This is despite additional clinics put in place by our spinal surgeons aimed at reducing waiting times.
“We fully understand how difficult these waiting times are for patients. We will continue to add additional clinics to reduce the current routine waiting times.”
A spokesman for the DUP, which has held the position of Health Minister for several years, dismissed Mr Patterson’s concerns and insisted it had waiting lists under control.
”Waiting lists are going down because of £70m extra investment,” he said. “We’ve also got a plan to get to grips with waiting lists. What have the UUP offered except sniping?”