Eilish O'Regan: 'Many forced to endure years on waiting list over broken promises'
More than four years ago, in January 2015, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a pledge on hospital waiting lists.
As the health minister, he declared a set of priorities, including a promise that nobody would be on a waiting list for more than 18 months by the summer.
By the following April, however, shortly before the new Cabinet was appointed, there were still 8,750 waiting to see a specialist for more than a year-and-a-half. That number has now jumped to 103,973.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Overall there are a record 551,965 public patients in need of seeing a specialist for the first time. They endure the delay to have their symptoms assessed and possibly get a diagnosis of an illness that will change their lives.
Many are in pain and are on hold until they get the specialist opinion.
The HSE refers to hospital outpatient waiting lists as a "significant challenge" and no longer makes promises like that delivered by Mr Varadkar.
The targets set for 2019 are modest. The number of new patients seen in outpatient clinics this year will increase from 953,000 to 1.2 million.
But at the end of the year there will still be around 510,000 on the waiting lists.
Outpatient clinics are simply overwhelmed by the rising numbers coming through for the same reasons hospitals are struggling - the ageing population, a growing population and more people with long-term diseases which can have a range of side effects.
At the same time there are around 500 vacant posts for consultants which are not filled, although a stand-in doctor may be in their place.
The Sláintecare plan to provide more care in the community, outside hospital, is still in its early days despite it being possible to remove some of this outpatient workload from clinics.
The clinics are also being slowed by the number of "no show" patients who have appointments and do not turn up.
There were 478,000 patients who did not keep their appointment last year due to various reasons including illness, recovery or having to go private.
A validation office is now in place to contact all patients waiting more than nine months to ask if they still want to remain on the list.
Although the National Treatment Purchase Fund was given €75m this year to buy private slots for waiting list patients, just €6m is going towards outpatient appointments with the rest spent on operations and scopes.
It will buy 40,000 outpatient appointments across specialties such as ophthalmology, ear nose and throat, orthopaedics and dermatology.
It's little wonder that those who can secure the money are going private and paying to see a specialist themselves. But this option is still unaffordable for many. Others are using the cross-border directive and going to Northern Ireland rather than suffer a potential delayed diagnosis.