Northern Ireland news

Seven-year waiting list for rheumatology patients as doctor warns north's NHS no longer fit to be called 'a service'

Dr Michael McKenna, a GP in west Belfast, has said the heath service can no longer 'stand over' seven year waiting lists
Seanín Graham

RECORD high seven-year waiting lists for rheumatology patients have been revealed - with one doctor warning that the north's NHS is no longer fit to be called "a service".

Figures obtained by The Irish News show the scale of the crisis in the Belfast health trust as it emerges from the Covid pandemic.

Patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating diseases classed as 'routine' are facing 334-week delays for their first appointment with a consultant - while urgent cases are waiting up to five years for an initial assessment before they can even access vital drug treatment.

Major backlogs in neurology and ophthalmology outpatient services are also recorded in the April 2021 document, while suspected bowel cancer patients are experiencing a 77-day wait.

Dr Michael McKenna, a west Belfast GP with more than 20 years' experience, said the delays are "beyond acceptable" and called for a radical overhaul of the system.

"At one point do we decide to rub that out, to stop calling it our health service because it just isn’t a service. It’s not a service when we say we’ll see you in five years' or seven years’ time, you can't stand over that," he said.

"It’s at the stage where you have to simply have to rip up the current rule book and start over again. There will be a need to look at the current waiting list, to see who is on it and do they need to be on it – and that’s an amount of work in itself."

The medic said it is important to recognise that there are many good treatments available for severely debiliating conditions, particularly rheumatoid arthritis.

"Key to good outcomes for individuals is getting access to those treatments at an early stage. Five years for an urgent appointment is not an early stage.

"The vast majority of people who use the health service pay their taxes yet many are now forced to go private."

Meanwhile, the British Heart Foundation NI has said the pandemic has led to a massive backlog for potentially life-saving cardiac operations.

Coronary bypass and heart valve surgery waiting lists have soared, with 30 times more people waiting compared to a year ago.

The charity said it is vital that heart services are prioritised before it is "too late" for some patients.

Last month health minister Robin Swann warned that the north's "appalling" waiting times could lead to breaches of the founding NHS principle of free treatment for all.

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