By Donal McMahon
HOSPITAL waiting lists in the Southern Trust have hit “crisis” levels with political anger towards what has been considered a financial budget sticking plaster by the Stormont Finance Minister.
New shocking statistics released by the Department of Health show as of March 31, there were a total of 111, 209 patients waiting to be admitted to Northern Ireland hospitals as inpatients or day care, an increase of 18.8% on last year.
A total of 335,042 patients were waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment, 55, 583 were from the Southern Trust making up 16.6%.
The Southern Trust accounted for 17.8% of those waiting to be inpatients, the third highest in the North.
A spokesperson for the Southern Health and Social Care Trust told the Democrat this week that it was focussed on diagnosing its waiting time issues.
“We very much regret the increasing waiting times being experienced by our patients,” said a spokesperson.
“Before the pandemic, demand for procedures was already increasing beyond available capacity.
“The need to delay surgeries due to Covid-19, has added to this pressure, with many people now waiting far beyond what we as health care providers would hope for our patients.
“As we carefully begin to rebuild our services, we look forward to resuming more theatre sessions so that more people can get the treatment they need.
“We continue to work with colleagues across health and social care regionally to address the ongoing waiting list issues,” added the spokesperson.
The Department of Health published the quarterly Northern Ireland Inpatient, Day Case and Outpatient Waiting Times Statistics, relating to the position at 31 March 2021.
The Waiting Times Statistics releases show detailed information on the number of people waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test and inpatient or day case treatment at hospitals in Northern Ireland.
Of the 335,042 patients waiting, 61.1% (204,744) were waiting in one of the following specialties: Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) (43,739), General Surgery (41,629), Dermatology (26,888), Gynaecology (25,909), Trauma and Orthopaedic (T&O) Surgery (25,084), Neurology (21,040) and Ophthalmology (20,455).
Of the 111,209 patients waiting for admission, four fifths (81.2%, 90,328) were in one of the following specialties: General Surgery (24,101), T & O Surgery (21,556), ENT (12,276); Urology (10,058), Gastroenterology (7,892), Ophthalmology (7,343) and General Medicine (7,102) .
Newry and Armagh MLA Justin McNulty has said that the crisis in waiting lists in Northern Ireland demands the immediate attention of political leaders.
“I welcome the publication of this report and its recommendations,” said Mr McNulty.
“It underlines the serious crisis that our Health Service faces and the particular pressure on people who have been suffering in pain and in angst on waiting lists for years.
“We now have a suite of reports that outline the scale of the reform needed to address spiralling waiting lists and deliver first class care to people before they die waiting for treatment. The issues facing the health service are systemic and they can only be tackled with strong political will. The only thing keeping the system going right now is the dedication of our front line staff.
“But this issue goes way beyond surgery waiting lists, for example over 5,100 children here waiting on an Autism Assessment, in the Southern Trust area we have over 2,600 people on a waiting list for mental health services or over 250,000 waiting for surgical appointments.
“This is the real state of our health service and it is deeply worrying.
“The SDLP and I have consistently raised this issue in the Assembly and with the Ministers of Health and Finance.
“Unfortunately, the budget presented by Sinn Fein Minister Conor Murphy does not set out a plan to deal with the multiple crisis facing our public services.
“This is a missed opportunity and particularly disappointing that given the critical state of the health service that the Finance Minister has not made addressing waiting lists a priority.
Enough is enough. Sinn Fein need to step up,” added the MLA.
The latest statistics have come to light after the recent Royal College of Surgeons’ 10 Step Action Plan for surgical recovery and the new budget by the Stormont Finance Minister, (Sinn Fein) Conor Murphy.
The Democrat contacted the Sinn Fein minister's office to respond to concerns of a lack of finances to relieve waiting hospital times and education needs of children with autism.
A Department of Finance spokesperson responded: “Health and education were prioritised in the Budget receiving the largest departmental allocations.
“Health received £6.8bn while education received £2.5bn.
“The Covid-19 funding allocated on 20 May of £59.5m for health and £51.7m for education is additional funding on top of their 2021/22 budget allocations.
“All allocations are agreed collectively by the Executive.”