Every statistic is a person

by Ralph Roberts

Waiting times are back to high again in Northern Ireland and it's time something was done 

Location: Northern Ireland
Published: Wednesday 23 November 2022
hospital corridor

There’s an inevitability about the waiting-list stats which are published every quarter.

You know you are working long hours every day, and you see your colleagues giving the same amount of time, effort and energy to their work as they always have, but you know the numbers will not have gone down; there will be as many if not more people on the waiting list as there were the last time. It is extremely depressing.  

Our waiting lists have never been good. People in Northern Ireland have always waited longer for treatment than in other parts of the UK; colleagues in England are stunned when I mention how bad our lists are.

Efforts to address them several years ago did work, outpatient and inpatient waiting times came down to quite acceptable levels, but over time they crept up again, because the extra money invested in achieving that was withdrawn, and the underlying problem of a demand capacity mismatch simply wasn’t addressed.  

Every single statistic is a person. For me, in my specialty, I know each of them is a woman who desperately wants to speak about her issues, be listened to, and to feel she is going to be able to have some form of treatment that will improve her quality of life.

With this in mind, it is very distressing to triage referral letters in the knowledge that grading a referral as routine condemns the patient to a wait of several years, or possibly to never being seen at all. 

These are not the kind of decisions I became a doctor to make, and that lack of ability to help and the burning feeling of unfairness could easily affect your mental health. 

When I do get to see patients who have been waiting for years to be seen, they are almost always polite, relieved to be seen, and grateful that they have finally got into ‘the system’.

However, if they need an operation, I then have to explain that they will have a further wait of several months or several years. The only alternative is to consider going privately, which most can’t afford. I spend ages apologising for something I am powerless to influence; it is so frustrating.

I am speaking out because I am amazed at the level of public acceptance, and because the voice of clinicians is all too rarely heard. Our politicians and the Department of Health need to come up with a clear and workable strategy to address the problem of waiting lists before it is simply too late to turn the situation around.


Ralph Roberts is consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology and a member of the Northern Ireland consultants committee