Leading article

Our unacceptable waiting lists need a permanent fix

Leading article

While the new executive moved quickly to resolve the nurses' strike, finding the money to address pay disparity and making progress on staffing levels, the crisis over waiting lists is likely to prove a much more difficult and complex challenge.

Northern Ireland's waiting lists are absolutely appalling.

Around 130,000 people have been waiting more than a year for treatment in the north. Yet in England, which has a population of 66 million, the figure is just 1,400.

The question is how have we got to this point and, more importantly, how are we going to sort it out.

Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary of the department of health and up until the return of the assembly, the person in charge of the health and social care system in Northern Ireland, this week gave evidence to the Stormont health committee.

He told MLAs that if 'all the money in the world' was made available to the department today, they could still not clear waiting lists overnight.

Mr Pengelly said to eradicate the lists significant funding was needed on a sustained basis, adding there was a 'real capacity issue' across the sector.

This is a fairly stark message and comes as an independent think-tank says there is 'no quick fix' to our waiting list crisis.

Deirdre Heenan and Mark Dayan of the Nuffield Trust point out that it is not as simple as increasing the volume of operations to take more people off the front of the queue.

One-off drives to reduce lists are expensive and they don't solve the fundamental problems.

They set out a number of measures that have been found to be effective in England, including splitting planned care and emergency care onto different sites.

''This is something the English NHS is backing in its long-term plan, because it can prevent the space for planned care from being overwhelmed by urgent patients at crunch periods,'' they said.

It certainly makes sense to look at other regions and hospitals where they have managed to reduce waiting times and ensure that patients are seen in a timely manner.

There is no doubt that we can learn from different strategies and ideas, and hopefully that process is already under way in our healthcare system.

Money will need to be spent but it needs to be targeted on fixing the underlying issues so that our unacceptable waits become a thing of the past.

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Leading article