NI surgeon body leader calls for emergency NHS summit saying ‘we needed radical change before Covid – now it is critical’

Surgeons have called on the Executive to convene an urgent health summit to deal with Northern Ireland’s “devastating” hospital waiting lists.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 2:02 pm

Almost 350,000 people are now on a waiting list for a first appointment with a hospital consultant, new figures show.

More than half have been waiting longer than a year.

Northern Ireland has the worst waiting lists in the UK, with the Department of Health previously warning it needs £707.5 million of additional investment over a five-year period to address the crisis.

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The department has published its quarterly waiting list figures which show that at the end of June, 348,867 patients were on a waiting list for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment.

This has grown by 13,825 from the previous quarter and by 38,946 from the same time in 2020.

The ministerial target is that at least 50% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, with no patient waiting longer than 52 weeks.

The statistics show 82% were waiting longer than nine weeks for their appointment and 53% (184,873 patients) were waiting longer than a year.

The figures also reveal that 112,915 people are waiting for surgical treatment, either as an inpatient or day case admission, with nearly 60% of these patients (66,287) waiting more than a year for their procedures.

The waiting lists have led to increased pressures on emergency departments across the region, as patients attempt to seek treatment at accident and emergency units.

Those pressures have been further exacerbated by increased numbers of Covid-19 admissions, which have led to some surgeries being cancelled.

Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “This stop-start approach to surgery is wreaking havoc on operating lists.

“We are urging system health leaders to do all that they can to bring about an expansion of Covid-light hospital sites and surgical hubs, to allow surgery to continue irrespective of the peaks and troughs of the pandemic.

“Our health service was in need of radical change before the pandemic, and the situation has only worsened over the last year. A health summit involving all political parties and health leaders will inject a critical impetus in addressing a solution to this ever increasing problem.”

Mr Taylor said the situation facing patients is dire.

He added: “We must always remember that behind these statistics are patients waiting in pain, worry and in great distress. It is heart-breaking as a clinician to tell patients that they may be waiting many more months, if not years, for the treatment they need. The moral distress we feel is very real.”

During an Executive summit on the waiting lists crisis last month, ministers were told that the health department needs an additional £475 million spread over five years just to tackle the current waiting list backlog.

An additional £232 million would then be required to rebuild the system to ensure demand meets capacity, to increase training numbers and to target recruitment based on demand analysis.

Ministers were told “some necessary changes will be politically challenging”, but they would need the backing of the Executive if they were to succeed.

The briefing said the department’s intention is to clear the waiting list backlog by March 2026.

Earlier this year, Health Minister Robin Swann unveiled his five-year plan to tackle the backlog.

Speaking at the time, he said: “Our waiting times are the worst of any UK region.

“It is simply not acceptable to me that the people of Northern Ireland should receive a lower standard of care than in other parts of the UK.

“The numbers waiting are shocking, but it is the experience of those patients waiting for care that is truly heart-breaking.”

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