LESS than half of A&E patients at the Ulster Hospital were seen within the government target of four hours last year.

And the number of people waiting for more than 12 hours has almost tripled in the last five years, with more than 17,600 people unable to see an Emergency Department doctor for more than half a day.

That’s according to new statistics released by the Department of Health, which show that in 2022/23 the huge Dundonald hospital’s A&E uni hit a five-year low in terms of performance.

A spokeswoman for the South Eastern Health Trust maintained that performance is holding up comparatively well on some metrics, and pointed to ‘well documented challenges trying to discharge patients’ as a reason for the spiralling wait times.

For the past few years, the Ulster’s Emergency Department has consistently been the busiest in Northern Ireland, and last year almost 105,500 people headed through its doors looking for help.

Only 45% were seen within four hours; for most of last year, government targets stated that 95% should be seen within that time, though in December a new aspiration of admitting, transferring or discharging at least 76% of patients by 2024 was brought in.

Over the past five years the Ulster’s waiting times have been up and down, but it had always managed to deal with more than half of emergency cases within the four-hour target – and some years treated over 60% within that time.

That wasn’t the case last year, when a total of 57,748 patients were not seen within four hours.

Statistics show that well over one-third of patients had to wait between four and 12 hours to be seen, while more than one-sixth waited over 12 hours.

NHS targets state that no one should have to wait more than 12 hours for emergency care.

A total of 17,851 people were stuck waiting to be seen for more than half a day; five years ago, 6,486 waited that long, only around a third of last year’s figure.

The Ulster’s A&E is currently seeing around 9,000 more people per year than it did five years ago, with a very noticeable jump in attendance coming in 2021/22 – not long after a Minor Injuries Unit in Bangor was closed while opening hours were reduced in a similar unit in Ards.

A health trust spokeswoman insisted that the Emergency Department is doing quite well on some metrics, stating that 75% of people began treatment within two hours of being triaged, compared to a Northern Ireland average of 64%.

Indeed, the South Eastern Trust is the best performing district in the province on that score – though NHS targets state that 80% of patients should start treatment within two hours of triage.

Said the spokeswoman: “Similar to all Trusts across the region, there are often delays admitting patients to a hospital bed from the Emergency Department because of the well documented challenges trying to discharge patients from our wards.

“The Trust has introduced initiatives such as ‘Hospital at Home’ in the Ards area in order to try and reduce the need for people to be admitted to hospital, and are working with our speciality hubs to improve the flow of patients through our hospitals.