Dire waiting list figures challenge for new Health Minister O’Neill

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O'Neill

The new minister for health is stepping into a role which will see her face a ballooning set of waiting lists and a raft of badly missed targets.

Fresh figures showing the extent of the problem were published by the Department of Health on Thursday, just as Michelle O’Neill – the former farming minister – was beginning to settle into her new post.

Those awaiting a first outpatient appointment make up by far the biggest of the main waiting lists.

As of March 31, there were 214,953 people on it.

Whilst this is down 8.7 per cent on the previous quarter (December), it is up by 12.1 per cent when compared to the same time a year earlier.

It has also been rising for some time – for example, it is more than double the figure in March 2012.

According to official targets, nobody should have to wait more than 18 weeks (four-and-a-quarter months) for a first outpatient appointment.

Out of the 214,953 who were waiting as of the end of March, a massive 100,234 – about 47 per cent – were waiting more than 18 weeks.

This is down by 18.4 per cent against December’s figures, but is roughly 44 per cent higher than the same time last year.

Meanwhile, the number of people waiting to be admitted as an inpatient in March was up by 17.2 per cent on the same time in 2015.

The official target states nobody should have to wait more than 26 weeks (six months) for this.

In reality, out of the 67,898 people on the list at the end of March, 17,601 (just under 26 per cent) had been waiting 26 weeks or more.

This number of people falling outside the target was 17.8 per cent down on December – but was still 29 per cent higher than in March 2015.

Dr John Woods, British Medical Association chairman in Northern Ireland said: “The picture with regards to waiting times as outlined in the department’s update continues to reflect the pressures the whole health service in Northern Ireland is under.

“We have repeatedly said that the department must urgently look at a range of issues to address this problem, and ensure patients here are not waiting for an unacceptable length of time.”

In response to the figures, the department said that “real progress was made in the last quarter of the year in securing significant reductions in the length of time people are waiting to be assessed and treated”.

But it added: “There is much more to be done in the coming weeks and months to drive down waiting lists.”