Hospital waiting times longer than reported

Current data does not record full wait time
  • Deborah Condon

The way in which Ireland currently reports public hospital waiting lists does not give a complete picture of the length of time patients are left waiting for services. In fact, waiting times are actually longer than previously reported, new findings suggest.

According to researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), while waiting lists are a feature of health systems worldwide, they have been a "significant issue" in Ireland over the last 10 years and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, waiting times for publicly funded elective hospital treatments are measured by how long someone has been currently waiting on a list, rather than how long someone who has already been treated had to wait for that treatment.

As a result, current data does not record the full waiting time. The ESRI researchers set out to record the full waiting time for public patients who had been treated, comparing these to waiting times for patients still on the list. They said this provides a more accurate picture of waiting times in Ireland.

Using data from the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) and OECD health statistics, a new method was established which calculated the number of days a patient had spent on a waiting list until their admission to hospital for a procedure.

Three specific procedures were looked at - hip replacement, knee replacement and cataract surgery.

The researchers found that when measured by how long treated patients had to wait, rather than waiting times for those currently on the list, Ireland's waiting times were longer than previously reported.

For example, when people currently waiting for a hip replacement were considered, Ireland ranked 6th out of 11 other OECD countries. However, when the time taken to be actually treated was considered, Ireland ranked 3rd out of 17 countries.

For knee replacements, Ireland moved from 6th out of 11 countries to 4th out of 17 countries. For cataract surgery, Ireland moved from 2nd out of 10 countries to 3rd out of 17 countries.

The reporters noted that the way in which Ireland reports waiting times for publicly-funded hospital treatment "has limited the possibility for international comparisons to be made".

"The new method provides a more complete estimate of waiting times and allows comparison of waiting times in Ireland with a wider range of international comparators. Results show that by using the more widely reported metric, Ireland's waiting times are longer than previously reported and compare less favourably with other OECD countries. It shows that measuring waiting time for those currently on the list provides an incomplete picture," the researchers noted.

They said that while waiting lists are a feature of all healthcare systems, "the long waits in the Irish context inevitably have a detrimental impact on health and quality of life".

"For some, long delays may mean living with impaired health or quality of life for a longer period than would be the case if care were provided in a timelier manner.

"For others, the consequences may be more severe as health deteriorates further while waiting, meaning that the proposed treatment is less effective, or that the individual dies while awaiting treatment," they highlighted.

They added that given that Ireland currently has a relatively young age profile, it is likely that demand for hospital services, as well as potential waiting times, will increase in line with the ageing of the population.

"Consequently, there is an urgent need to address these waits in Ireland."

A summary of the ESRI findings can be viewed here.


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