OVER 12,000 patients within the Southern Trust have had to wait over nine weeks to get their first diagnostic scan.
While waiting lists have almost always been a major issue for the Trust, the impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on our hospitals has been laid bare in the latest statistics.
The figures, which accurate are up to the end of September, are the highest in Northern Ireland and adds up to over 60% of patients within the Trust.
The statistics, published by the Department of Health and shared by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit, include waiting times for 11 diagnostic scans, namely barium studies, tomography, DEXA scan, diagnostic arteriography, MRI, non-obstetric ultrasound, PET, and X-rays.
They show the number of people waiting more than nine weeks in September 2020 compared to the same month in 2019.
In September the Trust had 19,464 on their waiting lists, over 4,000 more than the same time in 2019.
A total of 7,170 of those had been waiting under nine weeks, fewer than the previous year's total of 7,284.
That leaves 12,294 waiting over nine weeks – some 63% of those on the waiting list and well up on the 8,053 who had been waiting over nine weeks in September 2019, when the figure represented 52% of patients waiting.
A spokesperson for the Trust said that they “very much regret the excessive and increasing waiting times for assessment or treatment being experienced by so many of our patients”.
He added, “We continue to prioritise and treat patients by the urgency of their illness in line with extant guidance.”
The spokesperson said that the pandemic was having an impact was, without doubt, making a bad situation worse when it came to waiting lists.
“Demand for hospital services across Northern Ireland continues to grow beyond the capacity that is currently available - long standing staffing pressures in our health service, growing demand for hospital beds and an ageing population is putting significant and increasing strain on existing services,” he added.
“The COVID 19 global pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated what was already a crisis with waiting times. The Trust has been experiencing enormous pressures across our hospitals and facilities as we continue to provide care and treatment to Covid positive patients/clients in our wards and facilities. A significant number of Trust staff have also been on leave for Covid-related reasons during 2020.
“Whilst our staff will always do our best to provide patients with the best possible care at this extremely difficult time in their lives, we recognise the distress and anxiety that any delays in treatment, due to the continued impact of COVID 19 on hospitals, is causing to patients and their families."
This is by no means an issue restricted to the Southern Trust. The South Eastern Trust, for example has seen the percentage of those waiting over nine weeks jump from 38% to 61%. In the Belfast Trust 39% has become 53% in the space of a year, while in the Western Trust, where just 8% of patients were not being seen inside nine weeks, the figure has jumped to 26%.
Only the Northern Trust has seen a fall in percentage terms – from 66% in September 2019 to 48% in 2020.
Amongst those who are “very concerned” about the impact COVID-19 was having on cancer diagnoses, for example, is Jodie Moffatt, head of early diagnosis for Cancer Research UK.
“The length of time people are waiting for a scan will be having a negative impact on their diagnosis,” she said.
“Those patients could be diagnosed with a more aggressive, later stage cancer.
“That will limit the treatment options available to them also.
“There is a cohort of patients out there that have not been diagnosed yet - and who knows what state they will be in when they are.”