Hospital waiting lists may take up to a decade to clear, consultants warn

New figures show 463,000 waiting for treatment outside official targets but Department of Health says progress being made

Hospital consultants have warned that it may take up to a decade to clear existing hospital waiting lists after the latest figures showed an increase.

Data for March, published by the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) on Friday, shows there were just over 463,000 people waiting outside 10- and 12-week Sláintecare targets. About half that number were within target waiting times.

The Department of Health said progress was being made in addressing long wait times, with a 3 per cent drop in numbers waiting outside its targets compared to the previous month.

Overall, since the pandemic peaks, it said there has been a 26 per cent reduction in the number of people waiting longer than the Sláintecare targets, which equates to approximately 164,000 people.

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“Despite the significant challenges from the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, emergency department pressures and other operational factors, including recruitment, our hospitals have delivered improvements which are making a real difference to patients,” the department said in a statement.

“Many individual hospitals have delivered impressive reductions in both their waiting lists and waiting times. The HSE is currently working to replicate this positive performance across the entire hospital system.”

However, the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association (IHCA) pointed to an increase of more than 24,000, or 4 per cent, in the three main waiting lists for hospital appointments and treatments in the first three months of 2024 alone.

The department’s €437 million action plan for this year has set a target to reduce waiting lists for outpatient appointments and inpatient and day case treatment and procedures by 39,300, or 6 per cent, by the end of December compared with the number waiting at the start of the year.

This is an increase on the 3 per cent reduction achieved last year, and the Government says there is a targeted 10 per cent reduction in the number of patients breaching the Sláintecare time targets.

The IHCA said similar action plans in 2022 and last year had set ambitious reduction targets of 18 per cent and 10 per cent, but only cut waiting lists by 4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.

Prof Gabrielle Colleran, the association’s vice-president, said a new waiting list action plan, published by the department two weeks ago, has “already fallen at the first hurdle”.

“While we welcome any funding which aims to cut these unacceptably long waiting lists and allow patients access to the care they require, perhaps it is time the Government takes a different approach, if it is doing the same thing over and over again and still expecting to get different results,” she said.

“The NTPF figures released today confirm Consultants’ grave concerns that these waiting lists may take a decade or more to get under control unless the opening of long-promised additional hospital capacity is fast-tracked by the Government, and simultaneously the one in five Consultant posts vacant or filled on a temporary basis are permanently filled.”

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane TD also expressed concern that waiting lists were going in the wrong direction.

“The Minister for Health’s waiting list plans have failed to make a dent in hospital waiting lists. The truth is the Minister can publish as many plans as he wants, but without adequate funding to increase capacity they are just meaningless words on paper,” he said.

Mr Cullinane said a recruitment embargo was biting hard, and lack of funding for new measures is holding the health service back.

“To properly and sustainably tackle waiting lists, the recruitment embargo should be lifted and the Government should fund the 1,500 rapid build beds that are needed. These are crucial to reducing waiting lists at pace and with ambition,” he said.

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