Northern Ireland news

Ambitious £700m plan unveiled to 'banish' spiralling waiting lists within five years

Hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland are at a record high with more than 330,000 patients facing delays for assessments and treatment
Seanín Graham

HEALTH minister Robin Swann has pledged to "banish" spiralling waiting lists by 2026 as part of an ambitious £700 million plan to overhaul hospital care in Northern Ireland.

Unveiling his five-year roadmap yesterday, Mr Swann set out a range of "actions" to tackle the crisis, which has left some patients waiting seven years to see a consultant for the first time amid growing concerns about an emerging two-tier public/private health system.

There are currently more than 335,000 people on the north's hospital waiting lists - consistently the worst in the NHS - with the pandemic exacerbating a problem which has been "building for seven years".

"The time for talk is over. What we need now is concerted action," Mr Swann told the Assembly.

The shake-up will begin "within weeks" and includes the creation of a 12-month cross-border healthcare scheme allowing patients to pay upfront for treatment in the Republic's private sector and then be reimbursed by the north's health service.

A similar EU scheme used by desperate waiting list patients in Northern Ireland to travel to other European countries for surgery was axed last December due to Brexit.

Other "immediate actions" include:

- enhanced pay rates for healthcare staff working in targeted shifts and delivering priority elective (planned) care

- 'megaclinics' for orthopaedic outpatients, those waiting on cataract assessments and pre-op assessments are to up and running by September. Some patients will be asked to travel "slightly further" than usual to ensure they are seen more speedily

- Rapid diagnostic centre proposals will be in place by next March as part of 'medium term' plans

- Redesign of endoscopy services - including the possibility of a new regional endoscopy centre to deliver high volume scopes

- Big focus on missed appointments, with health trust booking teams to contact all patients prior to surgery to ensure all slots are fully utilised

- Major improvements in transparency on waiting times measurements from referral to treatment, to bring the north into line with the rest of the NHS

- NI-wide approach to care rather than "disjointed postcode lottery system"

- Digital innovations, including electronic prescribing in primary care, to be escalated

The introduction of more non-Covid healthcare sites - referred to a 'green pathways' - is also included in the detailed 'Elective Care Framework' document.

Mr Swann said he wants to ensure that by March 2026 no patient is waiting more than a year for a first outpatient appointment with a consultant or for daycase treatment - which he acknowledged was still too lengthy.

A 26-week target has been set for a diagnostics appointment.

Ultimately, the long-term goal is a "clear movement" towards a seven-day working week for hospital theatres.

"We need to realise with such appalling waiting lists and such serious demands on theatres operating times, as long as staff are properly supported there should be no difference between a Monday morning and Saturday afternoon," he added.

But the health minister accepted there are no "quick fixes" to the situation.

"I want long waits to have been fully banished by March 2026," he said.

"If we can bring forward this timeline we will obviously do so, but we have to acknowledge the scale of the problem that has built up and the capacity restrictions that will limit our room for manoeuvre.

“For example, there are currently almost 190,000 patients waiting more than a year for their first outpatient appointment. This is almost five times as many as when the abortive 2017 Elective Care Plan was published."

The five-year plan will be based on a twin-track approach of investment and reform.

"I view today as a staging post in the long struggle to turn our health service around. This crisis has been building up for years," Mr Swann added.

"We must put it right, however big the challenge. And we need to create sustainable long-term solutions.

"Fundamentally, we have to bring back hope and confidence; we must restore hope to all those languishing on waiting lists.

"There is a very heavy responsibility on all our shoulders. We must live up to it and deliver better public services.

"I have said it before about waiting lists, but it bears repeating. I cannot think of a more important issue facing not just my Department, but the whole Executive and Assembly."

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