Thousands more patients in Northern Ireland are being forced to spend over a year on hospital waiting lists than in England, despite the vast population difference.
The Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Surgeons has said our waiting times are “by far” the worst in any part of the UK.
Today, the News Letter can reveal the scale of the disparity using the latest data published by NHS England.
In England, with its population of around 55 million, the latest figures — relating to June this year — show that 1,089 patients had to wait more than a year to begin consultant-led treatment after a referral by a GP.
In Northern Ireland, with only a fraction of the population, an incredible 97,000 patients spent more than a year waiting on their first consultant-led outpatient appointment, according to the latest waiting time figures published by the Department of Health relating to March.
Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mr Mark Taylor, told the News Letter: “The first thing to say about the waiting lists is that, by far, we have the worst waiting lists in any of the four parts of the UK.”
While the Department of Health at Stormont has pointed out that the figures are not directly comparable due to differences in the way they are recorded between the four UK regions, Mr Taylor said the true picture is likely “much worse”.
The consultant general and hepatobiliary surgeon who was on the five-person panel chaired by Professor Rafael Bengoa that produced the ‘Systems not Structures’ report in 2016, explained: “Our waiting times are much worse than even what you’re seeing here.
“NHS England measure from the referral by a GP to start of the treatment. We have two measures — one is the time between a referral by a GP until you are seen by a consultant as an outpatient.
“What we have is 97,851 people waiting to be seen by a clinician, who will then be put on another waiting list. Of those people on the waiting list for treatment, 22,350 will be waiting for a year or more according to the inpatient and day case statistics.
“So, what that is actually saying is that not only do you have to wait a long time to see a clinician, you’re going to have to wait a long time to get your treatment.”
SDLP health spokesperson Mark H Durkan said: “This is the most stark evidence I have seen — and we have seen so much — of the need for investment in and reform of our care system. When you draw these comparisons with England we can see just how unbelievably bad our system is performing. It is not the fault of staff. It is a systemic issue.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The Department has repeatedly made clear that sustained and significant investment is required to address Northern Ireland’s waiting list backlog. The Department cannot spend money it does not have. The causes of the waiting list backlog are clear. 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. Transformation is underway and will undoubtedly involve some difficult decisions.”