An ex-health minister has said a fresh pledge of £40m for the health service will do little to stem ballooning waiting lists, with the queue for outpatient appointments jumping by close to half in the past year.
Figures released on Thursday by Stormont’s Department of Health show a major leap in both the numbers waiting for hospital appointments and the length of time which many spend on the list.
Current DUP Health Minister Simon Hamilton said that the new seven-figure injection of cash will help to bring the situation under control, saying it is “the start of a long journey to get waiting times back to an acceptable position”.
But former post-holder Michael McGimpsey (UUP) said this was “by no stretch of the imagination satisfactory”, and warned that the situation looks set to get worse.
Among the stand-out figures in Thursday’s statistical report is the revelation that there were 230,625 people on the outpatient waiting list (that is, those who come from home to visit hospital for an appointment) at the end of September – an increase of 48.3 per cent on the same time the previous year.
Of those on this outpatient waiting list – which is by far the biggest of the lists – 47.6 per cent were waiting 18 weeks or more for their first outpatient appointment at the end of September.
At the end of September last year, that figure had stood at 18.4 per cent.
The ministerial target is for zero per cent of patients to be waiting 18 weeks or more.
Following the release of the figures, health minister Simon Hamilton said: “Additional funding of £40m secured last week to go directly towards tackling waiting lists is extremely welcome...
“Already, patients are being contacted to attend appointments for hip and knee operations, spinal procedures and urology for example.”
He said more is needed, but it showed the health service is “beginning to head in the right direction”.
Mr McGimpsey, who held the post from 2007 to 2011, pointed out the total budget for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is more than £4.5 bn.
“It’s just going to continue to get worse and worse unless they get a special intervention to buy in extra services,” he said.
“The £40m will not do it... £40m is not what you’d call breaking the bank.”
He added that the minister had failed to put a plan into action to tackle the situation – which he described as a “crisis” – adding: “This dithering at such a time of crisis is unforgivable.”
The minister’s statement included no mention of what he believes the factors were behind the waiting list increase.
Asked what had made the situation so much worse in just one year, Joe McCusker, regional organiser of the health union Unison – representing around 30,000 health staff in the Province, including nurses – said he “can’t exactly put a finger on it”.
However, he suggested that some patients may have been on the waiting list so long their conditions had worsened, further inflaming the pressure on the health service.
He also said it was a symptom of “years of underfunding”.
He added that “they need to open up more beds, they need to extend into weekend working for consultants – what we need is a root-and-branch review for how we deliver out patient services”.
ACROSS THE BOARD RISE:
The list of inpatients (that is, those already in hospital) who were awaiting treatment stood at 62,697 at the end of September – an increase of 21.3 per cent on the same time last year.
Of those, 52.6 per cent were waiting more than 13 weeks for treatment (up from 38.8 per cent the same time last year).
Two other waiting lists cited in yesterday’s figures – one for diagnostic services, and one for “ICATS Tier 2 appointments” – also showed marked increases in size compared with the same time last year.