No 'red flag' child patients on waiting lists, health minister confirms after 'unacceptable' delays exposed
HEALTH Minister Robin Swann last night confirmed there are currently no 'red flag' children waiting more than a year to see a consultant - but described previous delays for cancer cases as "unacceptable".
He was reacting to a damning report released yesterday which revealed that by April this year, there were 24 children with suspected and confirmed cancer facing delays of more than 12 months to see a specialist for the first time.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) review also found that lengthy delays for austism services and paediatric spinal surgery had led to families seeking private treatment.
More than 17,000 children were on waiting lists for their first outpatient appointment in different medical specialties, the report discovered.
Taking questions from MLAs in the Assembly Chamber yesterday afternoon, Mr Swann said he was seeking "reassurance" from the north's health trusts about the delays for urgent paediatric patients.
He told Stormont colleagues that the Belfast trust, where the regional children's hospital is based, yesterday confirmed there were no currently waiting lists for red flag patients.
In a statement released several hours later, Mr Swann said the data from the NICCY report was "correct as of April 2021".
He added: "Waiting times were clearly unacceptable prior to Covid-19 and have been exacerbated by the devastating impact of the pandemic across all aspects of service provision including, unfortunately, children’s services.
"...Based on September monitoring information there are no red flag paediatric patients waiting more than 52 weeks.
"Addressing waiting lists remains a top priority for me however it will require systemic change and long term investment."
The commissioner also found that 62 per cent (6092) of children who require surgery were waiting over a year for an out-patient consultation.
Mr Isaac Philip, consultant paediatric surgeon from The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) of England in Northern Ireland said delayed surgery can severely impact on outcomes.
A total of 864 children are waiting for paediatric surgery in the north.
“Very sadly, if there is a delay in children having an operation, it can impact their life outcomes. It is therefore vital that children receive time-appropriate health and social care support," Mr Philip said.
"We have consistently called for Covid-light sites to be rolled out across Northern Ireland to help to protect surgery from pressures arising from winter flu or if there is another wave of Covid-19.
"We very much welcome the Department of Health’s plans to create two new elective hubs at Musgrave and Omagh to help address the backlog although it is unclear at this stage if paediatric services will be accommodated within these sites."
Mr Philip added there were "workforce issues" affecting paediatrics which require "urgent attention" in order to increase the number of specialist nurses.
"Overall, there is a shortage of nurses and theatre space. We welcome the Department of Health’s aspiration to improve our healthcare system and we support its work in progressing a regional approach to healthcare.
"The fact remains that we must prioritise helping more children to get the surgery, and hospital treatment, they desperately need."