CHILDREN with suspected cancer are among 17,000 young patients waiting more than a year to see a hospital consultant for the first time in Northern Ireland, a report has revealed.
Spiralling waiting lists for the spinal condition scoliosis is also forcing families to travel abroad and pay for private operations, while the number of children facing delays for autism assessments has increased by almost 150 per cent over the past five years.
An investigation into paediatric waiting lists by the north's children's commissioner lays bare the scale of the problem in both hospital and community settings - and the "profound" impact on young people's health outcomes.
The review found that 24 'red flag' children with either "suspected or confirmed cancers" were waiting in excess of a year for their first out-patient consultant appointment, which required a review, surgery or tests.
Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, described the hospital delays as "shocking".
“The report presents a concerning picture of the number and length of waits for services, this includes red flagged first consultant out-patient appointments which are either confirmed or suspected cancers," she said.
"While the impact of waiting on a red flag or urgent appointment is clear, we know that delayed access to any specialist support, whether that be for autism diagnosis or support, child and adolescent mental health services, physiotherapy or speech and language, can and does have a profound impact on a child’s health outcomes, emotional and mental wellbeing, educational attainment, relationships with family and friends and quality of life more broadly.
"The stress and pressure on parents and carers as advocates for their child, experiencing delays in accessing healthcare is significant.
"A clear message from them was that communication, co-ordination and emotional and practical support is inadequate and needs to be improved. These are the most basic expectations of these services and are particularly important when waiting times are as long as they are. Therefore, I have recommended an interim regional waiting list management process for child health services be established while overall reform is on-going."
The report, 'More Than A Number - A Rights Based Review of Child Health Waiting Lists in NI’, discovered:
- One in five children in the north are waiting for a first or review outpatient appointment with a consultant
- A total of 17,194 children are experiencing delays of more than a year, with 510 young patient waiting over 4 years
- One in every 47 children with conditions that require surgery or procedures are waiting for an in-patient or day case appointment. In April 2021, 62 per cent (6092) were waiting over 1 year, and 197 over four years
The review also found a "complete absence" of regional monitoring of waiting times for community child health services which made it "impossible" for the commissioner's team to get a clear picture of gaps in services.
"This review found that at least 26,818 (1 in 16) children in NI are waiting for a community-based health service and that figure is likely to be much higher given the limited data that was available," Ms Yiasouma added.
In relation to autism services, they found a 687 per cent increase in the number of children waiting more than a year for an assessment.
Earlier this year The Irish News revealed that "desperate" parents were paying £1,400 for private autism assessments due to a massive backlog exacerbated by the closure of NHS clinics during lockdown.
The commissioner's review makes 17 recomendations, including a full review of the child health system.
It also calls for the creation of a dedicated Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Child Health post to oversee commissioning, policy and service delivery.