Robert Watt to lead healthcare waiting list taskforce

Tackling waiting lists ‘greatest challenge’ in healthcare in Ireland, says Donnelly

Mary Lou McDonald: ‘The human toll of all of this is devastating.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Mary Lou McDonald: ‘The human toll of all of this is devastating.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Department of Health secretary general, Robert Watt, will lead the healthcare taskforce Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is establishing to deal with growing waiting lists for treatment.

Mr Donnelly said that tackling healthcare waiting lists “is the greatest challenge we face in healthcare in our country” and addressing that was his “number one priority”.

According to data published earlier this month, there are more than 900,000 people on a hospital waiting list in the State.

He told the Dáil the waiting lists “will receive the intense focus and attention and determination” that he, his officials and the Health Service Executive (HSE) used to deal with Covid-19 and roll out the vaccination programme.

The planned taskforce, proposals for which are expected to be brought to Cabinet within a fortnight, will include targets and “detailed hospital by hospital lists and plans”. The Minister said they would “keep driving this and investing in this until we meet prescribed Sláintecare waiting times for inpatient for outpatients and diagnostics”.

Earler in the Dáil, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called for the immediate filling of 720 consultant posts but Mr Donnelly said that in the past two years the number had increased from 3,153 to 3,500 but he acknowledged the difficulties in recruitment.

Challenging consultants he said clinicians should be “working to the full extent of their licence” and that operating theatres had to work longer than from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.

The Government was adding permanent capacity and in public hospitals 800 more beds had been added, he said, the biggest number in decades. Critical care beds would go to 321 by the end of the year from 225 with a target of 446 beds.

More healthcare workers including specialists had been employed last year during the pandemic, since the HSE was established.

In urology in Tallaght the waiting lists had gone from five years to 12 weeks.

Addressing Sinn Féin, Mr Donnelly said the inpatient waiting list in Northern Ireland per capita is more than twice what it is in the Republic, and the outpatient list is 100 per cent higher than it is in the Republic, adding that they all had to work together.

Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said funding would not be an issue in reducing health waiting lists for children, as Ms McDonald accused the Government of failing 100,000 children waiting years for consultant appointments.

Ms McDonald said children in need of a disability diagnosis and autism assessment or access to mental health services, and who “desperately need intervention”, face at least a two-year wait and cannot get access to therapies.

During Leaders’ Questions, Ms McDonald pointed to a case of one child with neurological symptoms, who was offered an appointment in 14 years’ time, in 2035. That was such a waiting time that “the child will no longer be a child when the appointment comes around”.

“The human toll of all of this is devastating,” she said.

“I’m talking about children with scoliosis, who live their days and nights in agony, waiting for a life changing procedure.” Ms McDonald said there should not be one child or family left in such an awful situation.

Ms McDonald accused the Government of being “wedded to a two-tier system that has failed people time and again and is not working for the 100,000 children on waiting lists”.

The Taoiseach said substantial funding had been provided in the last year for recruitment and there were now 6,000 more people working in the health service now than last year, and 4,000 more since January.

Mr Martin said there was an issue in terms of consultants’ contracts on the table as part of Slaintecare and he called on Sinn Féin not to play politics with it.

He told the Dáil his party had not been in Government for 10 years. He insisted that “targeting health waiting lists will be a key priority of Government as the country emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Mr Martin stressed that “it will not be a question of resources in terms of getting children off waiting lists”. He said resources will be allocated.

“Change is happening, and change will continue to happen in relation to our health services,” he said.

He said health spending had dramatically increased in the last 12 months, hospital bed capacity had increased significantly in intensive care, €25 million in funding had been provided for GP services and up to 70,000 additional diagnostic scans had taken place.