A report carried out into the Health and Social Care sector has revealed that patients waiting for longer than 26 weeks for inpatient care in the Western Trust and Social Care Trust (WHSCT) has risen by over 300 per cent in a two-year period.

The report, which was carried out by the Northern Ireland Audit Office paints a bleak picture for Health and Social care right across the province with a lack of funding identified as a major contributing factor to the difficulties facing Health Trusts.

The number of patients waiting longer than 26 weeks for inpatient treatment in the WHSCT has risen from 2,120 in March 2015 to 6,406 in March 2017.

The report further reveals over 3,000 patients are waiting longer than a year for inpatient treatment in the Western Health and Social Care Trust. Only the Belfast Trust fared worst with the Northern Trust at 101 patients, the Southern Trust at 1,028 and South Eastern Trust at 959, all performing significantly better.

Speaking about the four year wait for one of her constituents UUP MLA Rosemary Barton branded the wait times as “scandalous”.

“We are all aware of the massive issues with waiting lists in the Health Service, but frankly this is a disgrace and highlights the poor state that our Health Service is currently in. To be asked to wait at least four years for a hip replacement is nothing short of unacceptable. Indeed for urgent cases constituents are told the waiting time is at least two years. Imaging being on the routine list for two years, then being put on the urgent list and still having another two years to wait. The pain and suffering that many of our citizens are having to go through is scandalous.”

The report reveals that the Department of Health has lowered its target waiting times over the past number of years but that despite this these targets are still not being met. In 2014-15 the target was set that at least 80 per cent of inpatients be seen within a 13-week time frame. This was lowered to 65 per cent in 2015-16 and further to 55 per cent for 2016-17.

In the WHSCT the percentage of inpatients being seen within a 13-week time frame has fallen from 55 per cent to 38 percent from 2014-15 to 2016-17. This represents the largest fall of any of the five trusts.

The report highlights funding as one of the main issues affecting the health service currently, stating:

“In recent years, limited additional funding has been made available to Trusts to specifically tackle waiting time performance, and when funding was provided, it was allocated late in the financial year, limiting the Trusts’ ability to make best use of it.”

While the rise in patients waiting for inpatient treatment was sharpest in the WHSCT there was also a rise of over 100 per cent in patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for an outpatient appointment within the Trust. The figures rose from 7,212 in March 2015 to 15,740 in March 2017. This sharp increase was replicated in all but one Trust area, the Northern Trust.

In terms of Accident and Emergency waiting time,s the WHSCT was the best performing of the five Trusts with 499 patients waiting longer than 12 hours for emergency care in 2016-17. This was the lowest of the five Trusts although numbers are going up with the WHSCT having only 24 patients waiting longer than 12 hours in 2014-15.

The report also looked at Breast Cancer referrals targets which state that urgent referrals were required to be seen within 14 days. The WHSCT was the best performing of the five Trusts and achieved 100 per cent referral in 2016-17. In the same year the Trust also achieved 100 per cent of patients receiving their first definitive cancer treatment within 31 days old diagnosis.

However no Trust met the 95 per cent targets with respect to patients referred with suspected cancer beginning their first definitive treatment within 62 days. The WHSCT achieved 87 percent with the South Eastern Trust the worst performing on 48 percent.

The Audit Office were damning in their overall conclusion:

“Since we last reported on 2012-13 and 2013-14, performance in respect of key waiting time targets has clearly been very disappointing.

“It is particularly concerning that targets for inpatient and outpatient care are still not being met, despite having been significantly reduced from 2014-15. This highlights the degree to which patients have been experiencing significant delays in securing access to treatment in these areas,” it wrote, before adding:

“Going forward, we can only conclude that the rising demand for HSC services which is increasingly exceeding health service capacity, together with ongoing uncertainty over future funding, will significantly impact on the ability of HSC Trusts to meet future population need.”