Nearly a third of patients in Northern Ireland have to wait over a year for their first appointment with a consultant, new figures reveal.
The number of people waiting more than 12 months for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment has risen dramatically – up from around 53,000 last year to around 83,000 this year.
The figures, released by the Department of Health on Thursday morning, have been described as “scandalous” by the UUP.
The figures show the number of people on waiting lists on March 31, and the length of time they have been waiting.
In November 2016, the News Letter revealed that Stormont had quietly shifted the goalposts in how it measures the waiting times to make targets easier to reach.
In 2014-15, the target was to keep no more than 20% of outpatients waiting nine weeks, and to have every single outpatient seen within 15.
Now, the targets are to have no more than half waiting nine weeks, and no patients at all waiting for more than a year.
Even those more lenient targets are being missed by an enormous margin.
On March 31 this year, 198,296 patients (73.5%) had been waiting for over nine weeks, and 83,392 patients (30.9%) had been waiting for more than a year.
Compared to March 31 last year, there has been a substantial increase in the both the total number of people on the waiting lists and the length of time they are being forced to wait.
Last year, there were 253,093 patients in total on the waiting lists, 176,276 of whom had been waiting at least nine weeks and 53,113 of whom had been waiting at least a year.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs described the figures as “scandalous” and said they “illustrate the scale of the pace at which the situation is deteriorating”.
He added: “With every passing day the crisis in the local health service deepens. Whilst there were severe pressures two years ago, the situation today is wholly unrecognisable compared to even then.
“For as long as the situation continues to be tolerated through managed decline, more and more people are going to be forced to remain at home in significant pain and discomfort.”
SDLP MLA Mark Durkan said: “Despite the dedication of hard-working staff, our health service is over-burdened, under-staffed and under-funded.
“Our people deserve more than this, but without reform we will continue to fail patients and fail staff.”
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