AROUND 350,000 public patients could be languishing on waiting lists to see a hospital specialist -- 50,000 more than figures released earlier this month,the Department of Health revealed yesterday.
And as many as three quarters of this staggering number of patients, who are in the queue for first-time appointments, have been waiting for more than a year.
Outpatient figures were "hidden" until early this year when figures for patients on waiting lists started to be counted for the first time, showing hundreds have faced delays of four years or more. The latest estimate is that the real waiting list could be between 325,000 to 350,000, according to Dr Martin Connor, special adviser to the Department of Health's Special Delivery Unit.
The unit is charged with monitoring and working with hospitals to reduce patient delays for hospital treatment.
He said it was planned to get detailed data on how many patients are waiting and for how long in each outpatient speciality in all hospitals from July. The aim is to come up with targets setting out the deadline in which they should be seen, to be set from September.
However, the downside of seeing more people waiting for outpatients is that around 87,000 would need further hospital treatment and it is unclear how hospitals would cope.
"We will be homing in on the longest and first we have to find them," he said.
The ability of hospitals to make a meaningful dent in waiting times is unclear at a time when they are massively over-budget and under orders to reduce the number of patients they are treating.
Since the unit became operational last September, the total number of patients waiting for inpatient treatment, including surgery, has fallen slightly from 60,030 to 58,626.
The average daily number of patients on trolleys in A&E departments has fallen from 340 but there are still 260 enduring delays every day, with some hospitals so overcrowded on some occasions people are treated on the floor.
Dr Connor, a native of Manchester and a former NHS manager, who earns €160,000 a year, was embroiled in controversy earlier this year after it emerged he spent around half of every month studying in Stanford University in California. His visa in the United States has now expired and he will return to live in the UK, though he will still not be working full time in the unit.