'Recurrent and protected' budget needed to solve Northern Ireland's health waiting-list crisis

Northern Ireland's quarterly waiting time statistics have quantified, once again, what we already know about the under-pressure service struggling to see patients within waiting times.

Some urology patients have been waiting six years for surgery, while it is taking some patients six-and-a-half years to receive ENT (Ear Nose and Throat) surgery.The figures exclude the South Eastern Trust. It was unable to present data due to its' rollout of Operation Encompass, the digitised health records scheme.

The draft target for this year states that no patient should wait longer than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment.

However, 172,789 patients were waiting more than 52 weeks for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment on 31 March 2024. This is some 25,000 more people waiting for a year, than on the same date in 2023.The draft target for diagnostic waiting times state that, by March 2024, 75% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a diagnostic test.

59.1% (97,162) of patients were waiting more than 9 weeks for a diagnostic test, compared with 60.5% (92,815) on 31 December 2023.

This shows some improvement, which the Royal College of Surgeons described as evidence of small green shoots of hope, albeit deceiving ones.

That is because, according to the RCS, these patients will probably then move from the list waiting for a diagnosis, to the list of people waiting for procedures in light of those diagnoses.

Responding to the latest figures, Mr Niall McGonigle, Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Surgeons said the situation remains "extremely concerning."

"Today’s figures once again emphasise the scale of the task facing health service staff who are working tirelessly to get patients seen," he said.“It is vital that the Northern Ireland Executive sets out a recurrent and protected budget to increase capacity and tackle waiting lists.

"This includes opening more hospital beds for surgical patients, expanding surgical hubs, and supporting health service staff who are under huge pressure.“We welcome the new Health Minister, Mike Nesbitt, and offer support to him as he begins the challenge of ensuring Northern Ireland’s health service meets the needs of its patients now, and in the future.”

Speaking on his first say in the role of Health Minister on Wednesday, Minister Nesbitt said he is not prepared to implement “catastrophic cuts” to services.

That comes after his predecessor, Robin Swann, said that even deep cuts to the health service would still mean a budget deficit of over £180million.

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