Surgeons and cancer charities plead with Stormont over 'devastating' waiting lists
SURGEONS and cancer charities have called on Stormont to provide a roadmap to tackle "devastating" waiting lists after figures showed more than 320,000 people are waiting for an outpatient appointment and hundreds of cancer surgeries are still being cancelled.
Waiting lists have continued to increase as the health service struggles to cope with the impact of Covid-19.
Newly-released figures from the Department of Health show waiting times have shot up in the last year.
As of December 31 2020, a total of 323,174 patients were on the list for a first outpatient appointment with a consultant.
More than half of patients (167,806 people) were waiting more than a year - a rise of more than 15% in a year.
Around a third were in three specialties; ENT, general surgery or dermatology.
According to a ministerial target for 2020/21, no patient should longer than 52 weeks for an outpatient appointment.
An analysis of Health and Social Care Board figures by Macmillan Cancer Support highlighted that 923 red flag cancer surgeries were cancelled between January 11 and February 22 this year - in addition to 4,630 surgeries cancelled between last March and January.
Macmillan said 1,300 patients missed a cancer diagnosis between March and November last year, according to pathology data.
Spokesman Alasdair O’Hara said although a recovery was "in sight", an urgent plan is needed.
"As the backlog deepens, waiting times deteriorate and demand on cancer services grows, the cancer care landscape will become increasingly complex," he said.
He called on health minister Robin Swann to commit to a long-term cancer plan.
"As Covid-19 continues to impact on all our lives, everything possible must be done to ensure that people living with cancer have access to the care they need."
New figures show that 90,600 patients waited longer than nine weeks for a test - an increase of 11.5% on the previous year.
Margaret Carr, from Cancer Research UK, said the pandemic has had a "devastating impact on cancer patients".
"Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board is developing a plan for recovery of cancer services," she said.
"The plan will be welcome, but it’s crucial the forthcoming budget addresses the long-standing staff shortages which exist within cancer services. These must be tackled as a priority to ensure services are fit for the future."
Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, described the waiting times figures as "devastating".
"Having switched off many surgical services to focus on the urgent health needs of people presenting with Covid, it has proved very difficult to switch surgery back on," he said.
"Surgical services across our five health trusts remain well below capacity.
"We need a roadmap from the government to avoid a postcode lottery of patient care."
The British Medical Association said staff vacancies, particularly in consultant posts, were contributing to long waiting lists.
John D Woods, head of BMA Northern Ireland's Consultants Committee, said he was concerned to see "high vacancy rates in specialities such as surgery, anaesthetics, ICU and critical care medicine".
"These are key specialisms in addressing our spiralling elective care waiting lists and treating Covid-19 patients, where we recently saw a higher number requiring inpatient treatment than the first wave," he said.