Meeting told 200,000 on outpatient waiting lists

Fri, Mar 25, 2011, 00:00

ABOUT 200,000 people are waiting for outpatient appointments at hospitals across the State, with some waiting up to five years to be seen, a conference has been told.

Pat O’Byrne, chief executive of the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which manages all inpatient waiting list data and is tackling outpatient waiting lists on a pilot basis, presented the figure at a health conference in Dublin.

He said he had recently come across people waiting three, four and five years to see specialists in outpatients after being referred by their GP. He was speaking at a conference entitled Reforming the healthcare system.

It is understood the patients waiting five years are queuing to see ear, nose and throat specialists, while waiting times for orthopaedic outpatient appointments in Cork are up to four years.

No outpatient waiting list figures are published by the HSE and no official data on outpatient waiting lists has been available since a 2008 report from the Comptroller and Auditor General estimated there were 175,000 patients awaiting outpatient appointments.

Mr O’Byrne said outpatient waiting times were one of the biggest bottlenecks in the system at present.

“The numbers estimated on outpatient lists waiting for a first outpatient consultant appointment are about 200,000 at the moment. That seems to be a fairly static figure – and in some cases patients are waiting years.

“I have come across instances fairly recently where people are waiting for an outpatient appointment for five years, four years, three years. It’s not unusual, it’s out there.”

Minister for Health James Reilly, who opened the conference at the Burlington Hotel, said he was setting up a special delivery unit – similar to a previous initiative in Northern Ireland – which would tackle waiting lists within three years. It will be established within the Department of Health with strong representation from the HSE and input from Northern Ireland and Britain.

He had asked for “real time” information from the Department of Health on waiting list figures and that information was now being collated.

“Working off information that’s a year and two years old isn’t good enough any more,” he said.

“I will be personally monitoring the special delivery unit . . . I did say before the election that I would be judged by this and I would deliver the reduction in waiting times to acceptable levels within three years,” he added.

Asked if he felt the special delivery unit would work in cutting the waiting lists within three years, Mr O’Byrne said: “I think the potential is there to do it, yes.”

Michael Scanlon, secretary general of the Department of Health, who also addressed the conference, said waiting time data for outpatient appointments was poor to non-existent.

He said where a focus had been brought to bear on waiting times and targets set – such as for urgent colonoscopies, which now must be performed within one month of a patient’s referral – these were being met.

However, waiting times for non-urgent colonoscopies were still unacceptable.

The HSE said last night it was currently validating outpatient waiting list data to determine the true figures.

Dr Reilly also told delegates that the amount of money going into the service was unsustainable.

“Even if we weren’t facing the dire financial situation that the country does face, if we hadn’t attempted to reform our health service, if we had no plan for this [reform], the country would be bankrupted by the health system alone,” he added.