Last week the Department of Health published figures which show that the number of cases where people are waiting more than a year for their first outpatient appointment has just about doubled – to almost 40,000 – in a year.
At the same time, the total outpatient waiting list has more than doubled in five years – up from 117,926 in 2011 to 243,141 today – and the total number of people waiting more than nine weeks for an outpatient appointment has exploded by 274% in five years – up from 44,709 to 167,250.
The News Letter also revealed that the minister had quietly changed her waiting list targets in a way which makes them easier to achieve – but the NHS still isn’t hitting them.
Dr Gavin McDonnell, a consultant neurologist based in the Belfast Trust, said that neurology has the largest number of patients on a waiting list for a new appointment – and it also has the longest waiters for a new appointment.
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Dr McDonnell said: “In conditions like MS, we know that diagnostic and treatment delay can have adverse consequences for patients in the longer term. To put this in context, new referrals are usually graded as ‘urgent’ or ‘routine’ depending on the significance of the information provided.
“However, even being graded ‘urgent’ does not guarantee early assessment – there are parts of Northern Ireland where being “urgent” means a 16-month wait. This is completely unacceptable.
“‘Routine’ new referrals can actually include patients with MS, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy but such a grading is almost the equivalent of being told that one will never be seen.
“Sadly many patients feel forced into the private sector which is expensive and unaffordable for many being particularly unsustainable for patients with long-term conditions.”
Dr McDonnell said that “undoubtedly” there was a need for reorganisation in the health service, but added that “we also need investment in key resources”.
Dr McDonnell spoke out after comments from Patricia Gordon, director of the MS Society NI, who highlighted the human impact of the vast waiting lists. She said that 4,500 people in Northern Ireland are living with the degenerative condition and “everything we know about MS tells us early treatment is vital”.
She also warned that some patients are being put on powerful drugs to treat their condition but the medical check ups required to adequately monitor those drugs “are simply not in place”.
Speaking in the Assembly yesterday about all outpatient waiting lists, Health Minister Michelle O’Neill admitted that they are “unacceptably long”.
She denied a UUP claim that she is “massaging targets to match the poor performance of her department” and added: “I did not inherit this problem”, but rather it was the fault of “Tory austerity”.