Patients with spinal problems waiting six months on average for surgery
PATIENTS experiencing spinal difficulties in Northern Ireland are waiting six months on average for surgery, with a three-year delay for an appointment in one case.
The figures were released in response to an Assembly question from Green Party leader and North Down MLA Steven Agnew, who said he was "astounded that patients are waiting up to three years for spinal surgery."
The average waiting time for non-emergency operations is 23 weeks - almost six months - with the longest delay standing at 160 weeks, more than three years.
In her response, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said that some funding earmarked for elective care had been prioritised for the Belfast Trust to treat additional patients.
Mrs O'Neill said: "The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) recognises that further expansion in the spinal service is required.
"However, there are challenges due to the wider financial position, a recognised deficit of spinal surgeons nationally as well as infrastructure constraints.
"The board and PHA continue to work with the (Belfast) Trust to address the shortfall in trauma and orthopaedic surgeons in Northern Ireland."
The Health Minister added: "In other parts of the UK the shortfall in spinal surgeons is being managed by increasing neurosurgeons numbers and the HSCB is currently exploring this option with the Trust."
The minister also said that the Belfast Trust has "put in place additional clinics" but that demand remained high, in response to a separate question about waiting times for a spinal consultation at Belfast's Musgrave Park Hospital.
Mrs O'Neill added that the Belfast Trust was working in partnership with other trusts and agencies to introduce a system whereby only those who require surgical intervention will see a spinal surgeon.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew MLA said: "I fully appreciate the constraints that this specialised service is under, however it is reflective of the entire health service.
"The answer I have received from the Health Minister refers to minimising the increase in waiting times. I would prefer action to reduce them altogether."
Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request has revealed that more than 8,000 patients are currently awaiting an MRI scan in the Belfast Trust area, including almost 3,000 at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The Belfast Trust, which deals with some MRI scans for patients living in other areas as part of its workload, said that demand was exceeding capacity and that it was seeking additional resources.
A spokesman said: "As of 1st June 2016 there were 8,403 patients awaiting MRI scans in the Belfast Trust. Of these 1,394 are on planned lists, therefore their scans are planned for a particular month as indicated by their clinical pathway.
"The demand for MRI has increased at a rate of 6% per year. Despite additional, including evening and weekend, MRI sessions being delivered, the demand for MRI still exceeds capacity."
The Belfast Trust added: "The Trust is working closely with the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) to secure additional resources to address this shortfall."