'I am not going to be paralysed by the past, or afraid of future challenges'
Published 11/08/2016 | 02:30
As a new Minister for Health, just 12 weeks in the job, I count myself lucky to have taken on this role in a period where we can begin again to invest in our health service. My guiding principle is to see the fruits of a strong economy benefit our people by improving the public services that we all depend on.
I share the impatience of those working in the health service that those improvements cannot come fast enough and my whole motivation is to make them happen and provide a better service for patients.
Since becoming minister, I have secured €500m more in resources for the health service this year, and now I want to see results. I particularly want to see results targeted at those patients who have been waiting the longest for treatment.
These are patients who are likely to be in pain, who are worried about getting sicker, who may in fact be getting sicker.
There is a clear Programme for Government commitment of an annual €50m investment in this area from 2017. But, faced with the reality of increasing waiting list numbers, I wanted to see what could be done straight away - what real, achievable improvements could be made by the end of this year.
That's why I reactivated the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) and put in place a €1m endoscopy initiative for this year which will see 3,000 patients who are waiting for this type of test treated this year.
That's why I have asked the NTPF to gear up for increased investment next year so we can make the best impact possible on reducing waiting lists.
And that's why I also asked the HSE to work out a set of actions that were achievable in 2016 to tackle the lists of those patients waiting the longest. This resulted in the plan I announced on Tuesday, which will see the number of patients waiting over 18 months reduced by 50pc by the end of the year and the waiting list of patients, admittedly very small, waiting over 36 months eliminated by the end of September.
It also involves the clinical validation of these waiting lists by the end of this month, which seems to arouse suspicion in some quarters, but for me this is about making sure patients are on the right list to get the right treatment in the right place as quickly as possible.
And, it involves each hospital having a Waiting List Improvement Plan and the Special Delivery Unit working with them, monitoring performance and reporting regularly to my department.
I will readily acknowledge that the proposals I am bringing forward are not 'magic wand' solutions, but they are practical. 6,500, as a number, might seem like a drop in the ocean when compared to the total number on waiting lists but behind each of those numbers is a real patient.
Treating 6,500 more patients than would otherwise have been treated if we had done nothing seems a worthwhile aim to me, especially when it is those patients who have been waiting the longest for treatment.
The reality is there is no magic wand that can wave waiting lists away overnight. This is going to require a concerted effort from individual hospitals, hospital groups, the HSE and the newly-resourced NTPF.
It is going to require a continued focus on increasing access to safe, timely care, as close to patients' homes as possible and further investment in primary care so that procedures currently only carried out in acute settings can be carried out in the community.
It is going to require a continuing focus on the many patients across Ireland still spending far too long in our Emergency Departments, waiting to be seen, to be admitted, or to be sent home.
It also requires political leadership to make this a priority and I will not be found wanting in this regard.
I will do everything in my power to deliver on the 2016 waiting list commitments I announced this week and my department is in the process of finalising a winter initiative to reduce pressures in emergency departments.
This includes additional resources for home help services to help reduce delayed discharges and to support older people to live at home in their communities for as long as possible.
In 2017, I look forward to delivering on the €50m committed to in the Programme for Government to reduce waiting lists, with at least €15m of this ring-fenced for the NTPF.
I know there is a sense of fatigue around waiting list initiatives and that's understandable.
I also realise there are genuine capacity issues in the system which lead to scepticism that we can make progress in this area.
But I am not going to be paralysed by the past or frightened off by future challenges.
The time to start helping patients who are waiting the longest is now, and achieving those very real results for the people affected will lay the groundwork for bigger plans and further progress.
Simon Harris is Minister for Health