By James Gould

Hospital waiting lists are “spiralling out of control” in Northern Ireland.

That is the shocking picture being painted by leading Belfast GP Dr Michael McKenna who says he cannot recall “waiting lists ever being in the state they are currently.”

Dr McKenna, a member of the British Medical Association’s GPs Committee, has been working at his practice on the Falls Road for more than 20 years.

He says things have now gone from very bad to worse – with the latest Department of Health figures (from October to December 20202) showing just over 323,000 patients were waiting to see a hospital consultant for the first time.

That represents a rise of 18,000 on the overall figure for the same period in 2019.

It also means that Northern Ireland still has the worst waiting lists in the UK (see footnote) .

In a frank interview, Dr McKenna makes his feelings known strongly telling me that the current situation is simply not good enough.

“The number of patients waiting for a first appointment and for treatment continues to spiral out of control and this is no longer acceptable or sustainable,” he said.

“This is also despite a significant increase in consultant numbers in this time. 

“It is as if there is a complete inability of the system to change what it has always done in this time period.  We continue to forever add people onto waiting list without ever considering that this might be the wrong way to really make changes. “

The latest figures, which are available to view on the Department’s website, also show that of the overall total of 323, 174 patients waiting for a first appointment with a consultant, four fifths or 85.3%  (275,651) were waiting for more than nine weeks.

That represents an rise of 36, 521 when you compare the data to the same period in 2019.

In addition, more than half (167,806) the patients were waiting more than 52 weeks for a first consultant-led appointment.

Again, that is a substantial hike on the same period a year previously – with an extra 55,843 patients added to the list.

Dr McKenna says he hopes new initiatives including plans to transform NI’s Health Service which are included in the Covid-19 Surge Planning Strategic Framework, unveiled by Minister for Health Robin Swann in October 2020 and, more recently, a Cancer Recovery Plan, will help “shine a light through the chasm we have fallen into.”

However, he added the health service still had a long way to go before we might see improvements.

He added: “The impact on the coal face cannot be underestimated in terms of the resource being eaten up in terms of time and money. 

“People are attending their GPs over and over again with the same problem often getting a second or third letter to expedite or even a new referral because the people have forgotten they were referred for the problem in the first place as it has been so long.

“It is not uncommon to see people having waited up to 6 years in some specialities.  This often then adds to the spend on drugs as people suffer for years more that they should in pain needing ever higher doses of analgesia with the risk of developing dependencies.  This can render the GP with a feeling of helplessness as well as frustration.  That is not even mentioning the wider economic impact of those who are unable to work as they wait.”

Dr McKenna also highlighted what he sees as an unfortunate consequence of waiting lists getting longer – the emergence of another tier of healthcare with those paying to go private

“In the midst of this we see the rapid growth of private provision of healthcare which helps those fortunate enough to be able to afford it,” he said.

“ It creates an ever wider disparity in healthcare availability across the economic divide with the poorest, as always, losing out.”

Meanwhile, cancer patients are among those suffering most, according to Cancer Research.

In a statement to me, Margaret Carr, the charity’s public affairs manager in Northern Ireland, urged the decision-makers to tackle the issue as soon as possible.

She said: “The early diagnosis of cancer can significantly improve someone’s chances of survival and so it’s essential people don’t have to wait too long for diagnostic tests.

“As people with suspected symptoms, who perhaps did not approach their doctor during lockdown, now come forward for help and are referred for tests, pressure on these services is also likely to increase.

“Hospital services have had to rapidly adapt and innovate to manage the impact of the pandemic so far, and this will need to continue to prevent the number of suspected cancer cases mounting up further.

“The public also need to feel confident that, if they have suspected cancer symptoms, they will receive a test swiftly and safely, with minimal risk of exposure to COVID-19. Protecting diagnosis and treatment areas from the virus must be priority.

“Increasing service capacity is also essential. The introduction of infection control measures means that providing cancer services has become more time and resource intensive. Tackling the backlog of those waiting for tests will require more workforce, more equipment and the adoption of other innovations that release capacity into the system.”

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