Northern Ireland

Department of Health misses own waiting time targets

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Media captionThe number of people waiting for a first appointment has risen by more than 45%, as Mark Simpson reports

New figures show that the Department of Health has missed its own waiting list targets.

At the end of June, almost 86,000 patients had been waiting for more than 18 weeks for a first outpatient appointment.

The target is for nobody to wait longer than that.

Stormont's Health Minister Simon Hamilton said he was "disappointed to see increases". He said the "financial position" was posing "constraints".

The number of people waiting for a first appointment has risen by more than 45%.

The quarterly figures from the health department for April to June of this year revealed an 11% rise in patients waiting for a first outpatient appointment.

Referred

That means more than 212,000 people have been referred to a specialist or consultant by their GP but have yet to be seen.

Of those, the number of patients waiting longer - more than 18 weeks - increased by over 45% to nearly 86,000.

The number of people waiting for diagnostic services, which can include a test for a potentially fatal illness, increased by nearly 12% from March to June.

There has also been a small increase in the number of patients waiting for inpatient treatment.

Valerie Watts, the chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, said she acknowledged the length of time some patients were having to wait was "unacceptable".

"Regrettably, the current financial challenges mean that waiting times will continue to deteriorate," she said.

"This should be balanced with the fact that at the end of June 2015, approximately 40% of patients were waiting less than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, and 60% were waiting less than 18 weeks."

'Very bad news'

Health Minister Simon Hamilton said he was disappointed at the increases in the number of people waiting to be seen.

The DUP MLA said he would continue to work with the health trusts to reduce waiting times.

But he said that would be challenging "within the constraints of the current financial position, particularly given the increasing number of referrals and necessary reduction in the use of the independent sector".

"Maintaining the safety of services for patients and clients will remain a priority," he added.

Former health minister Michael McGimpsey said it was "very bad news" that targets in the Department of Health had not been met and that "month after month these patients are being let down right across a number of specialities".

"We don't pick targets in these areas at random. They are picked for good reason," said the Ulster Unionist MLA.

"It's about getting the patient diagnosed quickly, getting an early intervention and therefore you get the best outcomes.

"Look at the health service right now - the way it's being looked after and managed from the very top - it's hard to say that direct rule would make it any worse."

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