No patient to wait longer than a year for hospital care under new plan

HSE chief Paul Reid pledges to tackle ‘unacceptable’ waiting times

No patient will have to wait more than a year for a hospital procedure by the end of 2022, under ambitious new HSE plans for the health service this year.

The maximum time an outpatient will have to wait to be assessed by a hospital consultant will be cut to 18 months by the end of the year, under another target in the 2022 HSE service plan, to be published on Tuesday.

The plan, which sets out the detail of how the HSE plans to spend the €21 billion health budget this year, warns of “exceptional levels of uncertainty” around financial planning due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as “unprecedented risks” for staff.

In his introduction to the plan, seen by The Irish Times, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said it was his intention to devote "substantial efforts" to tackling "unacceptable" waiting times for care.

Currently, almost 18,000 people have been waiting for an inpatient procedure for more than 12 months, while 155,000 have been on the outpatient waiting list for more than 18 months.

The plan aims to have an additional 210,000 inpatient and daycare procedures, and 20,000 colonoscopies, carried out in 2022 compared with last year’s service plan.

There is provision for an additional 1.8 million home support hours, an additional 40,000 mammograms and more than 15,000 additional cervical screens.

However, the number of older people on the Fair Deal scheme will remain static, and almost 100,000 fewer people will have medical cards by the end of the year compared with last year’s plan.

Long Covid

A national service will be established to support people who are post-Covid and those who have long Covid, while free contraception will be provided for women aged 17-25 years.

The plan commits to restoring the full operation of all cancer services to address “unprecedented” backlogs and delays in diagnosis arising from the pandemic and the cyberattack on the HSE’s IT systems last year. Demand for services is projected to grow 10-12 per cent this year.

Planning of new elective hospitals in Dublin, Galway and Cork will be progressed, according to the plan, but consideration is also being given to further elective hospitals in other locations.

While an additional 297 acute beds are promised, this is in fulfilment of promises made in last year’s service plan. A further 19 critical care beds are funded in 2022, bringing total provision to 340.

The HSE says it aims to take on 5,500-10,000 extra whole-time equivalent staff.

The resilience of health staff after two years of the pandemic is identified as the biggest single challenge to the successful delivery of the plan. The second-biggest challenge relates to delivering reform priorities and improving service performance for patients “in the context of a pandemic showing few signs of abatement and an uncertain disease trajectory for 2022”.

“The impact of current and future Covid-19 surges and associated hospitalisation rates could sustain and worsen existing pressures in the delivery system,” the HSE warns.