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Nursing chief questions use of NHS consultants

Janice Smyth of the Royal College of Nursing has called for closer examination of how the consultant workforce operates
Seanín Graham

A NURSING leader has questioned if the NHS is making the "best use" of its consultants following concerns about levels of private work at a time of soaring waiting lists.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the north, said that despite having a workforce of more than 1,560 consultants the healthcare needs of the public are being failed.

In a letter in today's Irish News, the British Medical Association (BMA) - the biggest doctors' union - takes issue with a report carried in this newspaper in a which a GP criticised NHS medics working privately, asking "how can you sleep at night?" when hospital waiting times escalate.

Dr Michael McKenna, based on the Falls Road in west Belfast, hit out at a situation where thousands of patients are facing a two-year delay for their first consultant appointment - when quite often they could see the same doctor within five days in a private clinic at a cost of £150.

Dr John D Wood, the head of BMA, and his colleague Dr Anne Carson, chair of the union’s consultants’ committee, argued that even if more doctors chose to opt out of the private sector and work extra NHS hours, it would not solve the crisis.

Both medics declined interview requests.

Instead, in their letter, they say: "Outside of those contracted hours consultants are free to develop private work, should they choose to. However, even if they gave up their private work this would not alleviate the issues around lengthy waiting lists.

"...The problems around waiting lists go much deeper. Even if the doctors were in a position to take on additional NHS work would the DHSSPS (department of health) extend its budget to pay them and the other healthcare staff needed to deliver this?

"Beds, operating theatres, nurses and all the other support systems also need to be in place and the money is just not there to do that."

But Ms Smyth said the north's growing consultant workforce must be scrutinised to ensure the health service is providing value for money.

"The RCN is not fundamentally opposed to the private healthcare sector for those people that wish to use it but the Department of Health has a responsibility to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland - and that is not happening," she said.

"Questions must be asked of health trusts as to whether they have got everyone working at their full capacity at the moment, as I'm not sure that is the case.

"If, according to the latest workforce statistics, most of our consultants are contracted to work full-time, it is clearly not meeting demand with lengthy waiting lists and elective operations cancelled.

"There is a question around capacity but employers must also look at whether they are utilising their resources properly – and that their medical workforce are meeting their contractual obligations.

"With an annual health service budget of £4.8 billion, we need to look at how are we spending it."

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