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Call for better support for patients left languishing on Northern Ireland waiting lists

25 Nov 2021

Surgeons and a leading patient charity call for better support for patients ‘left languishing on waiting lists’

The Royal College of Surgeons of England and the charity Versus Arthritis have today called on the Department of Health to outline clearer plans for supporting patients while they languish on ever-growing waiting lists.

The joint appeal comes as new waiting time figures, released this morning covering July through to September 2021, paint a grim picture for patients in Northern Ireland.

A total of 116,199 people are waiting for surgery, which is an 2.9% rise on the previous quarter (111,209) and 16.5% rise on the same quarter last year.  Furthermore, 67,474 patients have been waiting more than a year, another slight increase on the previous quarter (66,287). 1

The largest number of patients waiting are for trauma and orthopaedic surgery (22,975), ENT (12,657), urology (9,963) and general surgery (25,871).

The figures also show a 2.7% hike in the number of people waiting to see a consultant for the first time with 358,346 on the list and 188,060 waiting more than a year.

In total around 474,545 people are waiting for either surgery or to see a consultant for the first time.

Additional figures relating to Day Case Procedure Centre (DPC) waiting lists make the Northern Ireland tally even higher by showing 13,980 people are waiting for a DPC appointment and 3,374 for treatment.

Mr David Swain, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon and Professional Advisor at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said:

“Today’s waiting time figures are yet another blow for patients waiting to start treatment in Northern Ireland.  Unfortunately waiting lists are at a record high and they remain the worst in the UK.  Very sadly, patients are deteriorating while they wait years for treatment and clinical advice.  This is why we are calling for better support for patients left languishing on waiting lists in Northern Ireland.

“We would like to see faster implementation of the Health Minister's Elective Care Framework across the country.  As he himself said, that must include ‘a relentless drive to bring down waiting times’.  To achieve this, we need to increase the number of surgical hubs where planned surgery can take place.  These COVID-light sites are key to keeping operations going through the winter and beyond. The minister has already identified Musgrave Park Hospital and the Primary Care Complex at Omagh as two new COVID-light sites for planned surgery. We now need to see further action to reduce the number of people waiting for planned treatment.”

Sara Graham, Northern Ireland Director at the charity Versus Arthritis, said:

“Current figures confirm Northern Ireland as the UK’s pain capital with the worst waiting times of anywhere in the country. Some people with arthritis in Northern Ireland are waiting a staggering six years, while others are forced to consider private treatment and risk their financial stability

“These are not just numbers - thousands have been left in agony and disabled because their life-changing joint replacement surgery has been postponed, unable to work or lead an independent life. Many are in limbo, with no updates or information about their treatment.

“A total hip replacement is one of the most effective treatments on offer to improve someone’s quality of life and mobility. We have an operation that works brilliantly and yet people with arthritis are unable to access them and face irreparable damage and worsening health.

“We need urgent action now to support both patients and an exhausted health service workforce. We’re calling for a support package that helps people manage their pain, supports their mental and physical health and gives clear and regular communication from healthcare professionals while they wait for surgery.”

In May, the RCS published an Action Plan for Surgical Recovery in Northern Ireland2. This included a call for increased investment, protected surgical beds, more COVID-light sites, waiting list accountability and measures to support patients to ‘wait well’. It also called for an urgent health summit.

The Northern Ireland health service is experiencing massive pressures due to high rates of COVID-19 patients, staff shortages and historic systemic problems. This year, the pressures have resulted in trusts cancelling or postponing lifesaving and life changing operations.

Notes to editors

1. Latest ‘Northern Ireland Inpatient Waiting Times’ can be found here. Outpatient figures are here.

2. The Northern Ireland Action Plan for Surgical Recovery: 10 Steps Not 10 Years can be accessed here:     N.B. One of the calls from the action plan referenced elective accountability. It called on the government to “publish an annual report setting out its response to the waiting time backlog in Northern Ireland as well as measures to support patients facing long waits for surgery”.  As part of this, we called on the Department of Health to undertake detailed modelling projections to reveal how long it will take to clear the backlog per specialty.

3. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is represented in Northern Ireland by a Professional Board of 20 surgeons reflecting the specialty areas of: Neurosurgery, ENT, Paediatrics, General Surgery, Trauma and Orthopaedics, Plastics, Urology, Vascular, Cardiothoracic and OMFS. The Board includes 10 elected regional specialty advisors, Association of Surgeons in Training (ASiT), QUB Medical School Surgical Society, NIMDTA Head of the School of Surgery and an RCS England Council member. The purpose of the Board is to improve surgical outcomes for patients, advocate locally and support the dissemination of good practice and professional guidance.

4. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care. For more information, please contact the RCS Press Office:

5.  Versus Arthritis supports RCS’ 10 steps not 10 years action plan. In addition the charity is proposing a 6 point package of support to help patients wait well which should include:

  • CLEAR COMMUNICATION to people with arthritis about when they will have their surgery and the care and services they will receive in the meantime.
  • PERSONALISED SELF-MANAGEMENT SUPPORT to help people with arthritis manage their pain while they wait for surgery.

  • EXERCISE AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY PROGRAMMES which have been designed to help people with arthritis stay active and prepare for surgery.
  • MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT to help every person with arthritis to manage their pain and to help with any associated depression and anxiety.
  • SIGNPOSTING TO BENEFITS AND EMPLOYMENT SUPPORT AND ADVICE for people with arthritis in work, seeking work or who have given up work due to ill health.
  • COVID-19 RECOVERY PLANS that address the needs of people with arthritis, with a greater emphasis on routine elective surgery and tackling the backlog that continues to grow.

6. About Versus Arthritis: There are over half a million people in Northern Ireland living with arthritis and musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions. That’s one in four people, with half of those living in pain every single day. The impact is huge as the condition intrudes on everyday life – affecting the ability to work, care for a family, to move free from pain and to live independently. Yet arthritis is often dismissed as an inevitable part of aging or shrugged off as ‘just a bit of arthritis’. We don’t think that this is ok. Alongside volunteers, healthcare professionals, decision makers and researchers we do everything we can to push back against arthritis.

The charity provides information and support across various channels:

For more information, contact



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