Recent figures show a dramatic increase in hospital waiting list numbers and patients waiting with chronic pain for long periods before receiving hospital treatment

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) recently called for urgent action to cut waiting times as the number of people waiting to see a hospital consultant or receive treatment in Ireland’s public acute hospitals reached almost 877,000. The increase comes as the publication of the HSE National Service Plan sparked concerns that 2021 would see a second successive year of reductions in public hospital appointments as the impact of the pandemic continues to affect the timely delivery of care.

In particular, there has been a marked increase in patients waiting with chronic pain for long periods before receiving hospital treatment — a 56 per cent increase over the past 12 months. Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that requires timely access to care for effective treatment. However, this care is being delayed for the more than 5,300 currently on the inpatient/day case waiting list for pain relief, and particularly so for the over 1,700 who are waiting longer than a year for treatment. This is more than a three-fold increase in long-waiters since February 2020.

This is more than a three-fold increase in long-waiters since February 2020

Resources

The IHCA has urged the Government to urgently put in place the capacity and resources over the coming months to catch up on the essential hospital care that is being postponed or delayed due to the pandemic, particularly in a number of key specialties. IHCA President Prof Alan Irvine commented: “[The] NTPF waiting list figures, which confirm almost 877,000 people are now on some form of NTPF waiting list, again highlight the impact of hospital consultant shortages and capacity constraints on those waiting for an outpatient appointment and related treatment. Timely access to care is vital in ensuring effective treatment and care for patients.”

The latest National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) figures also show significant increases over the past 12 months in outpatient waiting lists in:

  • General surgery (34%, +11,412).
  • Orthopaedics (17%, +10,951).
  • Gynaecology (13%, +3,622).
  • Dermatology (12%, +4,888). 
  • Urology (11%, +3,375).
  • Cardiology (11%, +2,850).

The almost 877,000 people on waiting lists includes 6,963 on a newly-created ‘Outpatient Suspensions’ list. This waiting list includes those previously on the outpatient list who are either not ready to proceed with their appointment, or who have accepted an invitation to access hospital care in another hospital through either an NTPF or HSE commissioning initiative.

The latest waiting list figures add to the concerns raised by the IHCA over the HSE’s National Service Plan, which foresees over 150,000 fewer outpatient appointments this year in public hospitals. Prof Irvine added: “Timely access to care is vital in ensuring effective surgical treatment, and for patients waiting to be seen by consultant dermatologists, cardiologists, gynaecologists and many other specialists.

“The dramatic increases in waiting times we are seeing will undoubtedly adversely affect patient outcomes and lead to a rise in healthcare costs. The indirect costs of ongoing symptoms impacting on people’s quality of life and their ability to work can also be substantial.”

Chronic pain

“Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that requires prompt access to care. Delays between referral and consultation in outpatient pain clinics and the current wait times for treatment far exceed what patients or their consultants consider ideal, with potential consequences for patient health outcomes. These concerns are unfortunately replicated across most specialty areas.

“The HSE told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health… that there is a plan to recruit 350 additional consultants in 2021. However, the recently published National Service Plan failed to outline how many additional consultants will be appointed and in post by the end of the year.

“There is now a grave concern at the absence of engagement by the Minister for Health and health service management with the Association to agree practical solutions to address the key factors that are driving our highly-trained specialists to emigrate at a time when they are urgently needed. 

“The appointment of additional hospital consultants, on terms to be agreed with the representative organisations, is the key enabler that is required to tackle the unacceptable waiting lists and the backlog of an estimated 700,000 fewer hospital appointments that have arisen due to the pandemic last year and the expected 200,000 reduction this year,” added Prof Irvine.