The development of new regional elective care centres for the treatment of cataracts and varicose veins could help to significantly reduce waiting times for patients across Northern Ireland, the Department of Health has said.
From December, new prototype centres at five local hospitals will undertake routine day surgery procedures for cataracts and treatment of varicose veins – a move the department believes will increase productivity by up to 30%, meaning more people will get the treatment they need more quickly.
The routine day surgery hubs for varicose veins will be based at Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn and Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex, while the centres for cataracts will be at Mid-Ulster Hospital, Downe Hospital and South Tyrone Hospital.
The move is designed to address Northern Ireland’s ever-lengthening waiting lists, which are currently the worst in the UK.
The department hopes the new centres will provide up to 2,000 additional cataract treatments and up to 500 extra procedures for varicose veins every year.
It expects that by December 2019, no patient will wait longer than one year, by December 2020 the waiting time will be cut to a maximum of 26 weeks, and by December 2021 all patients will be treated within the ministerial target of 13 weeks.
While some stop-gap measures such as paying for people to have operations in private hospitals will still be required to address the current backlog of patients awaiting procedures, the department believes the new regional elective care centres offer “a long-term, sustainable way to build the capacity of the health service to meet current and future demand.”
Describing the announcement of the new regional treatment centres as “an important step in the transformation of hospital services in Northern Ireland”, Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said: “The current waiting times for hospital surgery are totally unacceptable, and elective care centres are central to our plans to eradicate this scourge on our service.
“Delivering services on fewer hospital sites will increase the capacity of the health system and allow us to deliver more procedures. While this will be an important step forward, I would emphasise that additional investment is still needed to clear the significant backlog of patients who are waiting for an operation.”
Stressing that the new centres will improve “the efficiency and effectiveness of care”, the department said they will operate on separate sites from urgent and emergency hospital care, meaning they will not be competing for operating rooms and other resources, leading to fewer cancellations of operations.
While some patients will have to travel further for their treatment, the department says “they will be seen faster and have a better experience.”
According to department officials, the new prototype centres for cataracts and varicose veins will help with the planning of day surgery centres for a range of specialties.
They will be evaluated on performance, quality, service user, staff experience, productivity and overall value for money, with final decisions on permanent elective care centre locations subject to public consultations and ministerial approval.
By December 2020, the department hopes to transfer more than 100,000 day cases, 25,000 endoscopies and 8,000 paediatric procedures to regional elective care centres.
The specialties to be treated in the new regional elective care centres will include general surgery, urology, ophthalmology, ENT, gynaecology, orthopaedics and other relatively low volume specialties.
The move has been welcomed by the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Council chair, Dr Tom Black, who said he hopes the changes will be “a step forward in addressing waiting times in Northern Ireland.”
“Elective care – which is essentially non-urgent surgery or treatment – can often be cancelled at the last minute due to bed or staff shortages. By having these services delivered away from acute hospital sites it means staff are not pulled away to treat urgent cases.
“This will hopefully mean certainty for patients who will not have their procedure cancelled at the last minute.
“For doctors, they will be able to see and treat patients in a planned and managed way, which is something we know they want,” he said.