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Over 100,000 patients forced to wait more than a year for hospital treatment in Northern Ireland

28 Feb 2019

Northern Ireland Department of Health waiting time statistics published today (Thursday 28 February 2019) show there are now 21,477 patients waiting more than a year for inpatient treatment – a rise of almost 43.4% compared to December 2017. A further 94,953 are now waiting more than a year for an outpatient appointment in Northern Ireland.  Analysis by the Royal College of Surgeons has found that, by contrast, there were only 2,237 patients waiting more than a year in England. 
Data for the quarter from October to the end of December 2018 shows 24.2% of patients waited more than a year to be admitted for inpatient and day case treatment. An additional 6,498 patients are now waiting over a year for treatment, including surgery, compared with the same period in 2017.  There were also 14,302 more patients waiting over a year for outpatient treatment when compared with the same period last year (17.7% more). 
Government targets require that no patients should be waiting longer than 52 weeks for treatment. Northern Ireland’s waiting times targets have changed often over the years. Using the targets in force at each quarter in recent years, the 52 weeks target has not been completely achieved in over 12 years. 

The latest performance data shows 6,479 of all trauma & orthopaedics patients (38.5%) and 3,779 of all general surgery patients (22.6%) were waiting over a year for treatment. 
Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland measures its waiting times in two stages: referral to first outpatient appointment, and then outpatient to inpatient. Therefore, the real wait of many patients will be even longer than the statistics indicate. 

Responding to these figures, Mr Mark Taylor, Director for Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Surgeons, said:

“All levels of the Health and Social Care system are in agreement that such figures are totally unacceptable and that transformation is the only answer.

“The most recent review of healthcare in Northern Ireland, ‘Systems not Structures’, made the unassailable case for change, saying that if we do not change the way we provide health and social care, the situation will only continue to get worse.

“It’s important to remember that behind today’s distressing figures are patients who are having to wait far longer than is acceptable for the treatment they need. In my own specialty, patients with symptomatic gallstones are waiting up to two years for gallbladder surgery. Such patients are frequently attending emergency departments with flare ups of pain whilst they wait for surgery.

“As part of the transformation of the HSCNI, the creation of regional elective care centres is a very welcome step in the right direction. Last month saw the opening of two elective care centre prototypes, regional standalone surgical centres for cataracts and varicose veins. Similar centres are planned for other day surgery specialties.

“Our health services need the resources to close the gap between growing demand and the capacity of the system to meet that demand. This requires sustained and guaranteed investment over a number of years.

“It also means radical transformation of the way we deliver services which will require two elements - sustained funding push to reduce waiting times and eradicate the backlog of people waiting to stabilise the current situation and a longer-term strategy to tackle the capacity gap and prevent future backlogs. No one should underestimate the scale of these challenges.

“This year, a £30 million package was provided to reduce waiting lists. This has funded assessment and treatment for significant numbers of patients – people who would otherwise still be on waiting lists.

“Health and social care staff are working very hard to ensure waiting lists don’t fall any further behind but without political support and the required funding to bring about the changes needed, it will be very difficult to get our health service back on an even footing.” 

Notes to editors

1. Full data available here:

2. Waiting times in Northern Ireland are measured differently to the rest of the UK.  England, Wales, and Scotland measure waiting times from when a patient is referred for treatment (referral to treatment waiting times). However, Northern Ireland instead measures two stages of treatment: referral to first outpatient appointment and then outpatient to inpatient treatment. This document focuses on inpatient waits but it is important to stress that outpatient waiting times are themselves very long meaning the overall patient time from referral to treatment is far longer than anywhere else in the UK. It is very likely that an unacceptable number of patients will be waiting more than 2 years for treatment from initial referral.
3. In March 2018, £30 million in ‘transformation funds’ were released as part of the confidence and supply arrangements between the DUP and Conservatives. These funds were targeted at the reduction of waiting time pressures.

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.
5. For more information, please contact the RCS Press Office on: 020 7869 6052/6047; or email:

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