Northern Ireland news

'Urgent' patients waiting four years to see NHS consultants

Four-year delays for urgent referral patients, including those suspected Motor Neurone Disease, are being experienced in some specialties in the Belfast health trust
Seanín Graham

PATIENTS classed as "urgent" are now waiting four years waiting to see some NHS consultants - as the re-emergence of private clinics means you can access the same doctor within weeks for £200.

A leaked document reveals people suffering from severe arthritic illnesses are among those waiting 218 weeks for NHS assessments, however, appointments are available in the independent sector in less than a fortnight.

Suspected Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis cases also facing delays in excess of four years for neurology consultations in the Belfast trust, which is reduced to three months if patients and afford to pay to go down the private route.

The private sector suspended its work in Northern Ireland at the outbreak of the pandemic and provided services to health trusts.

However, multiple clinics are now up and running again in Belfast with the majority of their doctors also working in the NHS.

One GP spoke of how "uncomfortable" he was was with the north's "two-tier health system" and warned how it will further disadvantage those from poorer backgrounds post Covid.

"It's £230 for an appointment with some NHS consultants privately before you've even had a blood test or a scan - that's a 15 to 20 minute appointment and brief history and examination," he said.

"It doesn't sit well with me. We received these waiting time figures last week and I was just really disheartened. Obviously, we know they may be further impacted by Covid and winter pressures.

"I've had patients phoning all week and chasing referrals they had last year. For us as GPs it's really quite depressing when we are querying something sinister and potentially life-limiting like Motor Neurone Disease or Parkinsons and we're told an urgent referral is four years."

Data seen by The Irish News gives waiting time breakdowns by medical speciality across the Belfast trust for July in relation to first appointments with consultants following an 'urgent' GP referral - with neurology and rheumatology worst hit by spiralling delays.

The document will not be published for months and carries a warning about the current position, stating: "Please note that waiting times may be further impacted by pressures associated with COVID-19".

Ophthalmology, ENT and dermatology patients with potentially serious conditions face delays up to three years.

Red flag and suspected cancer patients are also coded - there is a two-week target for these cases to be seen - with bowel cancer and skin cancer patients facing delays of six weeks, with another medic warning this could wait could "make a big difference" in outcomes.

"Six weeks is the difference between bowel cancer spreading to your liver and your nodes versus getting it primarily at the source. It's the same with meloanoma," he said.

"We have a duty of care to the patient to try to do something. You end up phoning the on-call registrar for advice. It's becoming much more of a problem than Covid, we're overrun with people chasing non Covid conditions that are still having a significant impact on patients lives. It just doesn't seem fair that some people are seen more quickly because they can afford it and have a safety net."

Latest waiting time statistics - they are released every quarter - relate to the period between April and June when the north's health service was tackling the first Covid wave and thousands of procedures were cancelled.

Published last month, they showed 311,000 people were waiting for a first appointment with a consultant.

In a statement, the Belfast trust - which houses many regional specialties and provides treatments to patients across the north - apologised for the delays which they described as "unacceptable".

"We continue to review opportunities with our own staff and with the Health and Social Care Board to maximise the capacity available to us to treat patients on our waiting lists," a spokesman said.

"...We understand the distress and anxiety that long waiting times cause, particularly when patients are adversely affected.

"Regrettably, waiting lists are also being compounded by reduced capacity due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the requirement for social distancing to protect patients and staff. Belfast Trust is actively embracing new ways of working such as virtual consultations in order to see as many patients as possible within these constraints. We would like to assure the public that reducing all waiting times is a key priority for Belfast Trust."

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