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RCS survey reveals 60% of surgeons had to undertake more complex surgery because of long waits

27 Feb 2020


To shed light on the impact of long waits on patients, the RCS publishes today its NI waiting times survey. Roughly one third of surgeons registered in Northern Ireland took part.  The results include that:

  • Nearly six in ten (59.77%) surgeons said they had to undertake more complex surgery, due to a patient being on a waiting list for an extended period, including for more advanced cancers.
  • More than nine in ten (93.02%) surgeons said there were staff in their trust unable to operate because there were not enough beds to admit patients.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64.04%) of surgeons had to cancel operations at the last minute (i.e. on the day of the patient’s operation)

The top three reasons respondents cited for last minute cancellations (in order) were:

1.    Lack of ward beds

2.    Lack of operating theatre capacity/access

3.    Lack of staff (e.g. surgeon, anaesthetist, theatre staff, nurses, physios)

Waiting times figures published today in Northern Ireland show that of the 90,514 patients waiting to be admitted to hospital for either day case or inpatient treatment in December 2019, almost a third (27,090) are waiting more than a year for their admission. This represents an increase of 26% compared to December 2018. By comparison the latest figures for England indicate that just 1,467 patients waited more than 52 weeks’ from referral to treatment.

Mr Mark Taylor, NI Director of the RCS said:

“It is universally accepted that the waiting times in Northern Ireland are the worst in the UK. The increasing demand, reduced capacity and budgetary constraints have been highlighted as potential causes.

“In our survey of surgeons in NI, frustration was expressed about a lack of hospital beds for elective surgery, operating theatre capacity and wider workforce shortages. All too often operations were cancelled at the last minute. Surgeons also expressed concern that at times they had to perform more complex surgery as a result of the length of time patients waited on a list”.

“We welcome the Minister’s intention to address the waiting lists as a priority.  Surgeons across Northern Ireland stand ready to make change happen and improve our health service.

“The experience and expertise of surgeons should be utilised to develop a sustainable, joined-up plan to address the waiting list backlog and ensure that transformation of the system ensures we are not in this position in the future.”

Health Minister Robin Swann met this week with the Director and members of the Board of the Royal College of Surgeons in Northern Ireland. He fully agreed that clinicians must have a central role in plans to eliminate the waiting list backlog and deliver long-term transformation reforms. The Minister also welcomed the RCS’ commitment to tackling waiting lists.

Download the full report

Notes to Editor

  1. The RCS survey field work ran from 29 November 2019 – 17 December 2019. The survey was completed by 94 surgeons who worked in the NI health service during November 2019, which represents roughly one third of the total number registered in NI.  For a copy of the full survey contact the RCS press office: email:; Tel: 0207 869 6056
  2. Full NHS NI data is available here.
  3. The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care.
  4. The New Decade, New Approach deal document is available here.
  5. When comparing England wait times to NI, note that waiting times in Northern Ireland are measured differently.  England, measures waiting times from when a patient is referred for treatment (RTT waiting times). However, Northern Ireland instead measures two stages of treatment: referral to first outpatient appointment and then outpatient to inpatient treatment.
  6. For more information or interviews, please contact the RCS press office: email:; Tel: 0207 869 6056

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