SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood has called for urgent action to address “alarming delays” endured by patients waiting to see orthopaedic specialists.
Mr Eastwood has been told that patients are waiting more than a year for a first appointment - despite 2014 ministerial targets directing that no person should wait more than 15 weeks to be seen by a consultant and that at least 80% should be seen within nine weeks.
Figures obtained by Mr Eastwood from the Minister for Health following an Assembly Question reveal that more than 7,300 patients are currently waiting more than 15 week’s for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment in Northern Ireland.
More than 700 of these are in the Western Trust area but it’s understood many more local patients are among 6,118 people waiting to be assessed in the Belfast Trust area after being referred to orthopaedic specialists based at Musgrave Park Hospital.
Mr Eastwood has also been told that, following last year’s failure to meet targets, they have now been revised downwards. The Health Minister has said that targets for 2015-16 declare that at least 60% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment and no patient should wait more than 18 weeks.
He told the ‘Journal’: “It is scandalous that the solution offered by the Health and Social Care Board and the department to help meet waiting time targets is to lower them.
“Such manipulation of targets further condemns patients to longer waits for the treatment they need. Many of those being forced to wait suffer pain on a daily basis and deserve a much higher standard of healthcare.
“My constituency office has been contacted by several patients who have been waiting far too long to be seen by specialists in orthopaedics.
“Indeed, two Derry patients who called to my office have been told they must wait more than a year to be seen by a consultant after being referred to spinal specialists at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast.
“I understand there are many other patients from the Western Trust who find themselves in the same position after being referred to the Belfast hospital where more than 6,100 people waited more than the target 15 weeks for a first appointment last year.
“I’ve been informed that the current waiting time for a spinal appointment is more than a year due to the ban on the use of independent consultants because of financial constraints. This an unacceptable situation which demands the urgent intervention by the Health and Social Care Board and the Health Minister.”
Rather than “tinkering with targets”, says Mr. Eastwood, the minister must commit to providing the resources needed to address the unacceptable backlog and drastically reduce waiting times.
In response to Mr. Eastwood’s remarks, the North’s Health Minister Si mon Hamilton told the ‘Journal’: “It is not acceptable that any person should have to wait an excessive length of time for their appointment.
“I expect the Health and Social Care Board and the Trusts to work together to ensure that these targets are achieved within the resources available to my Department.
“The Western Health and Social Care Trust is working with the Health and Social Care Board to increase elective orthopaedic activity in the Trust area.
“This will initially focus on increasing operating capacity on the Altnagelvin Area Hospital site.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Western Heath Trust said: “The Trust is receiving an increasing number of queries on the waiting times currently being experienced across a range of its services. Within orthopaedic outpatient services, there is a gap between the demand related to outpatient referrals and the current capacity available within the trust to see this volume of patients. Unfortunately, due to the financial constraints within the last year, the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) was not in a position to fund the agreed gap. This has led to routine orthopaedic outpatients waiting times in the Western Trust exceeding the Ministerial target.
“It is important to note that the demand for orthopaedic outpatient services across the whole of Northern Ireland is greater than the existing capacity to provide the service. The Trust apologises for any delay experienced by our patients.”