Grim warning over hospital waiting lists from NI health board chief

Valerie Watts, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board
Valerie Watts, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board

Already lengthy waiting times for surgical operations are “likely to get worse,” according to a top health official.

Valerie Watts, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), has described a sharp rise in the number of patients on waiting lists as “regrettable”.

Hospital waiting lists are growing in Northern Ireland. Picture: Craigavon Area Hospital

Hospital waiting lists are growing in Northern Ireland. Picture: Craigavon Area Hospital

Some patients have been forced to wait up to 74 weeks for treatment.

Ms Watts has apologised to those affected, but said there has been an “unprecedented” demand for services.

“It is both regrettable and it was also disturbing for me to hear about those [waiting times], I am not proud to hear some of these stories, as CEO presiding over the Health and Social Care Board, to hear about these waiting times,” she told the BBC.

Ms Watts said an additional £2million a week would provide a large number of surgeries of drug courses for patients – which she felt was not too much to ask when the department spends £12m a day on health service provision.

“I will constantly make the case that we need more money for health and social care, to be able to provide the best standard, and the safest standard, of care,” she said on Thursday.

Asked if she was satisfied she was doing all she could to make a case for increased funding, Ms Watts replied: “I can assure you that there are very, very robust business cases and plans...and passionate pleas put to both those in the department and at Stormont about the need for extra money to be ploughed into, and invested in, health and social care.”

Earlier this week, leaked documents were published showing that up until this month, there had been 11,846 breaches of the 18-week waiting list target set for anyone to get a specialist appointment.

Paul Givan, who sits on the health committee at Stormont, said recent improvements in waiting times have now been reversed due to “budgetary circumstances” and the “rising demand and pressures which are occurring in the health service through an older population”.

Former medical director of the Western Health Trust Dr Alan McKinney said politicians should prioritise funding for health service to deal with the waiting lists.

He said political representatives “can’t continue to squabble and fight about things and not make progress” on a making a decision about funding health care.

“Folk in Stormont and their advisors have big salaries, they have a job that needs to be done and I would like to see them get on and do that,” he said.

While waiting list problems continue to dominate the news, the health department has released new figures showing “improving position” in the performance of A&E units.

The number of patients being seen within the four-hour and 12-hour targets is up in the last quarter despite an increasing number of people attending hospital emergency departments (ED) – with 15 of the 18 ED departments either maintaining or improving the number of patients being treated and discharged, or admitted. However, the department described the figures for those waiting more than 12 hours to be dealt with as “disappointing”.

Last month, 236 (0.4%) of the 63,198 people attending EDs waited in excess of 12 hours. Antrim Area Hospital showed the best performance with a total of five people waiting longer than 12 hours in June, compared to 78 in June 2014.