Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health has unveiled a £700 million (€812.8 million) plan to deal with the North’s hospital waiting lists within five years.
The Elective Care Framework, which was announced in the North's Assembly by Robin Swann on Tuesday, is based on a twin-track approach of investment and reform.
“Targeted investment to get many more people treated as quickly as possible; reform to ensure the long-term problems of capacity and productivity are properly addressed,” Mr Swann said.
He said his aim was to have “long waits to have been fully banished by March 2026.”
The delivery of the plan, which must be signed off by the Executive, is dependent on the necessary funding being made available on a recurring basis.
It also includes the establishment of a new cross-border healthcare scheme, which will allow patients to receive private healthcare treatment in the Republic of Ireland and seek reimbursement up to the cost of equivalent treatment in the health service in Northern Ireland. The Cross-Border Healthcare Directive will operate for 12 months from July.
Radical action needed
The chair of the British Medical Council in Northern Ireland, Dr Tom Black, said the announcement was "welcome" and "radical action" was needed to address the North's "truly shocking" waiting lists.
However, he also said “doctors across Northern Ireland are stretched, burnt-out and demoralised and these plans need to be considered in that light.
“The minister has previously said that staff needed a chance to rest and we hope he will honour that promise,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s waiting lists have been growing in recent years, and worsened due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Almost 190,000 patients have currently been waiting more than a year for their first outpatient appointment, almost five times the number when a similar Elective Care Plan - which was not implemented due to the collapse of Stormont - was published in January 2017.
The framework includes a range of short, medium and longer term actions.
From next month, Mr Swann said he would introduce “enhanced rates of pay for staff working in targeted shifts and delivering priority elective activity to fully maximise internal-HSC [Health and Social Care] capacity.”
“Megaclinics” for orthopaedic outpatients, cataract assessments and for a range of pre-operative assessments will be developed and in place by September.
“Whilst such clinics may entail some patients being asked to travel slightly further than the otherwise would have, they will improve the numbers of patients seen and very importantly - the speed at which they are seen,” Mr Swann said.
Detailed proposals for a rapid diagnostic centre or centres will be in place by March.
There will also be a specific focus on reducing missed appointments.
In the longer term, Mr Swann said, there would be a “clear movement towards a seven-day working week for our hospital theatres.”