Dr. Nicola Herron tells MLAs bad situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic - waiting lists ‘absolutely intolerable’

Derry GP Dr. Nicola Herron told MLAs yesterday that waiting lists for operations and services were already bad before the pandemic but are now ‘absolutely intolerable’.

Friday, 28th May 2021, 3:55 pm

She said that where patients once would have demanded health services in their local areas they are now often so desperate for care they would accept treatment anywhere.

The local GP added that there is now a de facto two-tier reality when it comes to accessing health care with people who can afford it going private to bypass the long public waiting lists.

Dr. Herron is the Interim Chair of the Western Local Commissioning Group. She made the observations at a briefing of the Stormont Health Committee.

“The pandemic has created what was already an unacceptable situation regarding waiting lists and we’ve all already been discussing that. It has made it absolutely intolerable at this point.

“Certain areas in particular - scheduled operations, dementia care - all of those have just gone completely from being a bad situation to an even worse situation.

“There has been a lot of focus on meetings to see if we can come up with a strategy to try and meet the needs of the population in a better way.”

The Derry doctor was speaking as new Department of Health figures revealed diagnostic waiting times continue to breach target levels in the Western Trust.

A report for the quarter ending March 2021 that was published yesterday shows 46.2 per cent (7,844) of patients were waiting longer than nine weeks at March 31, 2021 for a diagnostic test in the Western Trust and that 27.5 per cent (4,660) were waiting longer than 26 weeks. On a more positive note 93.3% of urgent diagnostic tests were conducted in the Trust within two days - the best in the north. While the figures released yesterday were for diagnostics, waiting times for scheduled surgeries across the north are far longer than they should be.

Briefing the Committee yesterday Dr. Herron said the waiting list crisis has led to a shift in attitude.

“I suppose what I see as a GP on the ground is that in the past people used to be very focused on where they got their treatment. I know as local representatives there was always a lot of pressure to keep services local and that would be operative services - operations, hospitals, outpatients, casualty departments - all of that.

“There was a big push from the population to keep that as local as possible and to have them on their doorstep. My experience recently, particularly since COVID, has been that people are now much more concerned with when they are going to get their treatment as opposed to where.”

She told MLAs that people who ‘desperately need to have hip operations done, or gall bladder operations, cataract operations’ that can be ‘life-enhancing and life-saving’ need to be able to access surgery ‘sooner rather than later’.

“People are much less concerned that these services will be available to them on their doorsteps. They are much more concerned that they want to have them as soon as possible,” she said.

In reality, people on higher incomes are securing better health outcomes across the north, she told the committee.

“I know there is the old saying ‘your health is your wealth’ but unfortunately at the minute in Northern Ireland ‘your wealth is your health.’ If you can afford to pay for your procedure people are doing that. They are absolutely desperate,” said Dr. Herron.

She explained that failing to provide timely surgery within acute care is leading to pressures in primary care.

“Health is a circular thing....when someone is waiting five years for hip surgery GPs are inundated with people needing ongoing care and recurring care, for help, for referral for physiotherapy, for more pain relief, for forms to be filled out. These are people who, if they had their surgery, would be independently living in a much more pain free way so everything has a knock on effect on everything else.”