Northern Ireland

Children’s waiting times in Northern Ireland have become ‘out of control’ warn medics

The Royal College of Paediatrics Ireland said waiting times for children in Northern Ireland has risen by 172% since 2016

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MEDICS have warned of a “catastrophic” rise in waiting times for children in Northern Ireland, increasing by 172% since 2016.

A report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) Ireland revealed the figures, commenting that the situation had become “out of control”.

Between the summers of 2016 and 2023, they said there was a 172.6% increase in overall outpatient waits for children, reaching a record high of 22,272.

Representing a 22.5% increase from the previous year, the RCPCH report also shows the “deeply concerning” number of children and young people waiting over a year for treatment.

This included 578 ongoing waits over a year in June 2016 and 6,326 in June 2023.

A spokesperson said: “The consequences of such long waiting times are profoundly damaging for children.

“Many treatments and interventions must be administered within specific age or developmental stages, making the irrevocable effects of such delays even more pronounced.

“Prolonged waits not only impair children’s mental and physical development but also have a detrimental impact on their education and overall wellbeing. Feedback from children and families has illustrated their worry and discontent with the impact of long waits.”

This year, RCPCH published reports noting extremely long waits in Wales and Scotland, but these were still behind Northern Ireland.

While Scotland and Wales saw minor reductions in outpatient waiting times in 2023, they continued to grow in Northern Ireland.

The report contains several recommendations to improve outcomes for young people.

This includes a full review of the child health system, stronger workforce planning and better data collection.

Dr Ray Nethercott, RCPCH Officer for Ireland said: “We know that for all age groups Northern Ireland has some of the worst waiting times in the UK, but we also know that for of children, time is felt relatively.

“A year long wait for a child does not compare with that of an adult in the grand scheme of their lives. Long waits are also more dangerous for children and young people, with many treatments need to be given by a specific age or developmental stage. Often if you miss the right window to treat a child or wait too long the consequences can be irreversible.”

He added: “A 172% increase in paediatric waiting times since 2016 is nothing short of a catastrophe. Not only are these out-of-control numbers unsustainable, but they also represent a failure to prioritise children’s health.

“We have seen exceptionally long waits in Scotland and Wales also, not to the same extent as Northern Ireland. As a paediatrician I am deeply frustrated to see Northern Irish children bearing the greatest burden when accessing health services.”

With Northern Ireland having the lowest spend on children in the UK, he said the child health workforce was fighting a losing battle without further support.

“Our new Assembly gives us the perfect opportunity to fix these issues and invest in our future by investing in our children,” he said.

Children's Commissioner Chris Quinn
Children's Commissioner Chris Quinn

Chris Quinn, Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, called the report an important intervention.

“It is critical that any measures taken to address waiting lists actively includes provision to support paediatric services, and the staff working to ensure their operation,” he said.

“I have been concerned by the limited consideration of paediatric waiting lists in the devolved institutions since their return, and this report demonstrates that children cannot be left waiting for political action.”

Royal College of Surgeons Northern Ireland Director, Niall McGonigle, called the findings “extremely concerning.”

“Outpatient appointments give the chance for a child and guardian to see a consultant for the first time - to outline their worries and begin their quest for answers,” he said.

“These appointments should be timely, but if left too long, children and their families are left worried and waiting. The impact of this could lead to missing important developmental milestones. There is a clear need to reform the system so that patients are seen more quickly.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “This report demonstrates that we must do everything we can to improve outcomes for children and young people. We recognise the pandemic and ongoing resource constraints have exacerbated existing pressures on children’s services and have adversely impacted children’s health and wellbeing.”

“Tackling lengthy waiting times is a key priority. It is undoubtedly a long-term issue that requires sustainable and recurrent funding, workforce development and system wide transformation,” they said.

“Our waiting lists are unacceptable, and the need to transform services on a sustainable basis is paramount. These figures show the scale of the waiting list crisis and demonstrate the need for multi-year funding.”