HOSPITAL waiting lists have spiralled out of control over the last few years, new statistics have shown, to the point that only around one in seven local outpatients are now being seen in time.
The number of people waiting longer than the target nine weeks for an outpatient appointment has almost doubled since 2016, the figures reveal. And the number of inpatients waiting more than the target 13 weeks for admission to hospital isn’t far behind. The statistics show that back in summer 2016, only around one in eight inpatients or outpatients had to wait longer than a year to be seen.
By summer 2022, almost half of all local inpatients were stuck on waiting lists for at least 12 months – and a whopping 58% of outpatients didn’t get their first appointment until more than a year after they were originally referred. New government targets say that no one should have to wait longer than 12 months to be seen.
The same targets, due to come into force next year, state that at least half of NHS outpatients should have their first appointment within nine weeks of being referred by their GP, while half of all inpatients should be admitted for their procedure within 13 weeks. Inpatient and outpatient waiting list figures published by the Department for Health show that the South Eastern Health Trust, which runs NHS hospitals and clinics throughout this area, has struggled to meet its targets for several years. It’s now Northern Ireland’s second worst performing health trust for outpatients, behind only Belfast. Despite missing inpatient targets as well, however, it’s the best performing trust in the province for that category’s waiting lists, and consistently has been for the last 18 months.
The newly published statistics show that almost 82,000 people were stuck on outpatient waiting lists over July, August and September this year. That’s an increase of almost 5,000 on the same period in 2021. Of those 82,000 people, over 69,400 had to wait longer than nine weeks for their first appointment – almost double the 35,600 who had to wait that long in 2016. Meanwhile, 47,300 were stuck on waiting lists for more than a year, compared to just 6,000 in 2016.
But in some good news for the trust, the problem may be levelling off. Summer 2021 and 2022 both saw around 85% of people forced to wait longer than nine weeks, and a little less than 60% on waiting lists for longer than one year. Neither is anywhere close to meeting NHS targets, but they at least seem to indicate that outpatient waiting lists have stopped getting any worse for the time being. Inpatients, meanwhile, saw a total of 13,150 people on waiting lists for their procedures from July to September – up around 900 on the same period last year. Statistics show that 6,100 of them were on those lists for more than 12 months, up more than 1,000 on the same period of 2021.
Back in summer 2016, fewer than 1,100 were on waiting lists for more than a year. Seven out 10 inpatients waited longer than 13 weeks for admission, though that is a slight fall on the previous year’s figure. The South Eastern Trust is still the best performing in Northern Ireland for inpatients, however. All the rest have longer waiting lists, with the worst performing, Belfast, seeing four times as many people wait longer than 13 weeks, and twice as many people wait more than a year.
THE HUGE increase in local hospital waiting lists that started in 2016 is down to a lack of cash and elective surgery being halted during Covid, the local health trust has said. As shown in newly published Department of Health figures, 2016 appears to be the real turning point for the South Eastern Health Trust’s outpatient waiting lists.
Covid and cash problems to blame, says health trust…
Until that point, it was largely performing on the same level as the Western, Southern and Northern trusts; there’s some ebb and flow, but those four are broadly at the same point, with the Belfast Trust consistently having the worst waiting lists. All five trusts saw their nine-week and 12- month outpatient waiting lists start to climb rapidly upwards around 2016, but the South Eastern’s get worse much faster than the Western, Southern and Northern trusts.
From that point on it pulled away from those three districts, and was persistently the secondworst performing trust in Northern Ireland by a substantial margin. The Western, Southern and Northern trusts continued to have broadly similar performance levels, though again with some ebb and flow.
Commenting on the issue this week, a spokeswoman for the South Eastern Trust laid the blame for the rocketing waiting lists over the last six years at the doors of underfunding and 2020’s Covid pandemic. “The overall referral rate has dramatically increased, which has raised the total number of patients on the waiting list,” said the spokeswoman. “The trust has not had any significant recurrent funding to enable this demand to be met. “The trust is the regional speciality centre for both plastic surgery and maxillofacial referrals, which significantly impacts the referral numbers received compared to other trusts.”
Stating that the trust is now ‘delivering more outpatient appointments than preCovid levels’, the spokeswoman added: “The trust is approximately 3,000 above its June 2016 total for inpatient and day case figures. This significant increase over the past few years can be attributed to the cessation of all elective surgery during the height of the pandemic. “The trust continues to rebuild theatre capacity successfully; however, the suspension of surgery during the pandemic has led to an increase in patient numbers and this rise cannot be tackled immediately. “The trust uses all available theatre capacity and, because there is no recurrent funding, has availed of the independent sector to ensure priority patients are treated in a timely manner. All referrals are seen in order of priority.”