Change or collapse, NI health service warned

Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University was a co-author of the report
Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University was a co-author of the report
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There is a “lack of ambition” to tackle the “strikingly poor standards compared to other UK countries” in hospital waiting times in Northern Ireland, a new report has found.

Research by the Nuffield Trust, a registered charity whose aim is to improve healthcare, found that work to overhaul the health system here is at “an early stage and patchy” with problems made worse by the political vaccum.

The report found that Northern Ireland patients are “at least” 48 times as likely to face a year-long wait for planned treatment than in Wales, which is the next-worst performing nation in the UK.

“There is a lack of ambition around tackling waiting times for planned care, despite strikingly poor standards compared to other UK countries,” the report’s authors state.

The report is based on a series of interviews with senior medical professionals, civil servants, former health ministers Edwin Poots and Michelle O’Neill, as well as academics and doctors’ representatives.

Written by the Nuffield Trust’s Mark Dayan and Ulster University academic Professor Deirdre Heenan, the report warns that the Northern Ireland health system must “change or collapse”.

The authors describe waiting times for elective care in Northern Ireland as a “stain on the system”.

But the report also states that there are “some signs consistent with (a) more positive version of the future”.

Despite the dire situation, the Nuffield Trust report found that “people at the centre of the system have genuinely reorientated towards trying to make services change what they do, not simply managing decline”.

The Department of Health at Stormont has said it is determined to make the necessary changes.

A spokesperson said progress is being made despite the “political and budgetary uncertainties”.

“Transforming how health and social care services are delivered was always going to be a challenging and long-term task,” the department said in a statement.

“Important progress has been made, notwithstanding the political and budgetary uncertainties of recent years.

“There is a collective determination across the health and social care system to build on that progress and deliver on the transformation agenda.”

Addressing criticism of Northern Ireland’s long waiting times, the spokesperson said: “The Department has repeatedly made clear that sustained and significant investment is required to address NI’s waiting list backlog.

“The Department cannot spend money it does not have.

“The causes of the waiting list backlog are clear.”

The spokesperson continued: “Waiting times have been escalating since 2014, as growing pressures on the health budget meant limited funding was available to suppress waiting time growth.

“Alongside sustained investment, longer term transformation of services is required to prevent future backlogs.”

The department also suggested some services will need to be ‘consolidated’, saying: “Transformation is underway and will undoubtedly involve some difficult decisions.

“Consolidating some hospital services in regional centres of excellence will improve capacity and help the health and social care system keep up with growing demand.”