Almost 400,000 wait for treatment as lists hit 15-year high
ALMOST 400,000 people are facing long delays for "important medical tests" after hospital waiting lists hit a 15-year high, according to the Department of Health's own figures.
A record 396,783 people across Northern Ireland are waiting for treatment, a hospital appointment or a diagnostic test - the equivalent to 22 per cent of the entire population.
Health minister Simon Hamilton has been accused of "unforgivable inaction" over the soaring figures, which show nearly half of people (110,000) are waiting longer than the government's 18-week target for their first appointment.
However, Mr Hamilton insisted he is "confident" that last week's funding announcement of an additional £40 million will "kick start the process of getting the waiting times back to an acceptable position".
He said the money will go directly towards tackling waiting lists in "a wide range of specialities including orthopaedics, gastroenterology, neurology and ENT".
"It will allow up to 40,000 additional assessments and between 10,000 and 15,000 additional operations and treatments to be progressed, over and above ongoing regular trust activity," he said.
"Already, patients are being contacted to attend appointments for hip and knee operations, spinal procedures and urology for example.
"It is the start of a long journey to get waiting times back to an acceptable position and will need further additional funding to ensure success, but we are beginning to head in the right direction."
The minister admitted that "substantial progress" had been made on addressing waiting times, which "regrettably has all been lost over recent times".
"The length of time people have had to wait has been unacceptable, but I am fully committed to getting us back to where we were and over time making further improvements."
But former health minister Michael McGimpsey said the escalation in waiting time had become "an outrageous situation".
"Some can afford to wait, but for those people with serious illnesses or those having to endure unimaginable pain - they are badly being let down," the UUP assembly member said, pointing out that the delays "will inevitably lead to delayed diagnosis of serious or life-threatening conditions and... a much reduced likelihood of a successful outcome".
"Whilst I welcome the recent allocation of £40m emergency funding through the monitoring round, the minister's premature and exaggerated claims of `kick starting' the local health service need to be tempered given the fact that in the previous financial year his department received over £80m additional funding and the situation only continued to get worse."