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One in five patients in Northern Ireland waiting more than a year for treatment, warns Royal College of Surgeons

31 May 2018

Northern Ireland Department of Health waiting time statistics published today show patients continue to wait too long for surgery. Data for the quarter from January to the end of April 2018 show 62.3% of patients were waiting longer than 13 weeks to be admitted for inpatient or day case treatment. For the same period, 20.4% of patients waited more than 52 weeks to be admitted for inpatient or day case treatment, a rise of just over 7% when compared to the figure in March 2017. In total, this number was 16,454.

Currently, Government targets require that less than 45% of patients should be waiting over 13 weeks and 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 13 weeks waiting times target has not been met since the quarter ending 31 March 2013 and the 52 weeks target has not been completely achieved in over 11 years. 

The latest performance data shows more than 5,280 (34.6%) trauma & orthopaedics patients and 3,133 (19.9%) general surgery patients were waiting over a year for treatment. In reality, as patients will have first waited many weeks to see a specialist, they will be on waiting lists much longer than these numbers suggest. 

Responding to these figures, Susan Hill, Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons, said:

“The latest figures show no respite for the deplorably long list of patients waiting for surgery in Northern Ireland. It is clear the service does not have the capacity to deliver the number of operations needed for new patients or to address this unacceptable backlog. 

“The release of £30 million in ‘transformation funds’ in March 2018, as part of the confidence and supply arrangements between the DUP and Conservatives, has been targeted at the reduction of waiting time pressures. While this is a welcome and desperately needed injection of funds, there is an urgent need to progress service reconfiguration, particularly around elective care to allow better access to surgery.

“Political instability, a lack of leadership and failure to put in place a budget for much needed reforms in Northern Ireland, mean too many patients are being left ill, in pain and discomfort, and unsure as to when they might receive the treatment they so desperately require. 

“The longer patients wait for surgery, the more they are at risk of their health deteriorating. Many remain unable to work or carry out day-to-day tasks, causing immense stress to them, and their families. 

“Health and Social Care staff show heroic commitment and a dedication to delivering high standards of care. However, the political situation in Northern Ireland shows little sign of resolving itself, thereby undermining their efforts to reduce long waits. 

“We hope that as proposals to deliver planned operations in areas such as general surgery, orthopaedics and vascular surgery at day surgery centres are progressed, more timely care will be delivered to both elective and emergency surgery patients. 

“That said, until a Government is formed, a health minister is appointed and a budget is agreed, there is little hope of the sort of progress that is needed to significantly cut waiting times. The Health Service in Northern Ireland remains on a collision course. Once again, we urge all stakeholders to come together to find an agreed way forward to allocate funds and allow the much needed Elective Care Plan, as well as the associated reforms to be implemented as soon as possible.”

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. 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.

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


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