Up to 900,000 people may be on hospital waiting lists, consultants warn

Pandemic and cyberattack ‘cannot mask’ capacity issues in health service, says group

The Covid-19 pandemic and HSE cyber attack "cannot mask" long-standing capacity and consultant deficits in the Irish healthcare system, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) has said.

It added that as many as 900,000 people could be on some form of acute public health waiting list when the latest data is published.

The ICHA has called on the Government and HSE to expedite the publication of plans to tackle “escalating” acute hospital waiting lists.

The latest National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) hospital waiting lists are expected to be published soon, according to the IHCA, following a two-month delay due to the cyberattack.

Figures from last May show there were over 885,000 people on some form of NTPF waiting list to be treated or seen by a consultant.

The IHCA said the number of people waiting for inpatient or day-case treatment has grown by more than 31,000 in the past decade, an increase of 69 per cent.

Meanwhile, there has been a “100-fold increase” in those waiting on the same list for longer than 12 months since May 2012, from 199 people to 20,820 in May 2021.

The association said growing waiting lists are not simply a result of Covid-19 but demonstrate the impact of “years of consultant shortages and underinvestment in capacity” across public hospitals.

IHCA vice-president and consultant histopathologist Professor Rob Landers said waiting lists have been deteriorating over the past decade.

“Over the last decade, the situation has progressively deteriorated to a point where we are now in an absolute crisis,” he said.

"The Government and health service must stop hiding behind the pandemic and cyberattack as the main reasons for our growing waiting lists. We need multi-annual budgeting from the Department of Health and to bring together a plan to sort this problem out once and for all."

Prof Landers said within his own speciality of histopathology (the diagnosis and study of diseases of the tissues), patients are presenting at a later stage over the past number of years.

"Patients are coming in at a more advanced stage – much more so than they should be, and more so than they would be anywhere else in western Europe in particular. This is because people are waiting longer for operations and therefore are waiting longer to start follow-on treatments like chemotherapy. This simply should not be the case," he said.

Prof Landers added while the Government and HSE has said they will be publishing a plan to tackle waiting lists, it as well as a separate plan for addressing capacity deficits need to be expedited as a “priority, ahead of the next winter period”.

In a statement, the HSE said it had continued to deliver urgent health care during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that the cyberattack had had a “further negative effect on service delivery”.

Emergency departments last year saw “historically low attendances”, according to the statement, but this year were seeing historically high levels, putting high pressure on the system, the HSE said.

The average length of stay for patients in hospital has increased by one day, meaning more beds and care needs are required to support the same number of patients, according to the statement.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

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