Over a third of patients in Northern Ireland are now being forced to wait more than a year to see a consultant, the latest hospital waiting times show.
Waiting times continue to worsen across a range of specialities and a leading medical body is urging politicians to “set aside differences” and get Stormont back up and running to help tackle the problem.
The latest waiting times for diagnostic tests such as MRI scans, x-rays and ultrasound scans were published yesterday morning, alongside the waiting times for consultant-led appointments.
The figures, which outline the situation on March 31, show that there were 130,351 patients on the waiting list for some form of diagnostic test with more than a fifth (28,310) waiting more than 26 weeks.
That represents a steep increase on the same time last year, when 17,065 patients had been waiting at least 26 weeks.
The target is to have most patients seen within nine weeks, and everyone seen within 26.
The waiting lists to see a consultant paint a similar picture.
There were 288,754 patients waiting for an appointment on March 31, with over a third having been waiting at least a year – 97,851 in total.
At the same time last year, 83,392 patients had been waiting 12 months or more for an appointment.
The target is to have half of patients seen by a consultant within nine weeks, with no one forced to wait more than a year.
The Royal College of Surgeons, a leading professional body, said politicians are faced with a “massive task” to sort out the problem.
The Department of Health, meanwhile, said “sustained investment” is needed.
Earlier this month, the department’s top civil servant Richard Pengelly warned that it could take £1 billion to sort out.
The department said today: “The waiting times have been building up since 2014 as a result of wider financial pressures facing the health and social care system.
“With budgets increasingly stretched just to maintain existing services, funding to suppress waiting time growth has been in limited supply.
“The department has repeatedly made clear that sustained investment is required to address the waiting list backlog.”
The director for Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Surgeons, Mark Taylor, said: “We must never lose sight of the fact that the waiting list numbers represent patients, in pain and discomfort, who are being made to wait far longer than is acceptable for the treatment they need.
“There is a real onus on our political leaders to put aside differences and establish local government as quickly as possible to assist in the massive task ahead.”
He added: “It will only be with political leadership, sustained funding and ongoing transformation of our health and social care service that we will bring about the necessary reduction in these waiting lists.”