The latest figures from the Department of Health span October to December 2020, when the health system was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over those three months, the number of people waiting for a first appointment fell slightly to 323,174.
The ministerial target relating to outpatient waiting times states that by March 2021, at least 50% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, with no patient waiting longer than 52 weeks.
At the end of last year, 323,174 patients were waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment. This is 1.2% (4,015) less than at September 30 2020 (327,189), but 6.0% (18,157) more than at December 31 2019 (305,017).
An additional 13,042 patients were waiting for their first consultant-led outpatient appointment at a Day Case Procedure Centre (DPC) for cataract treatment.
Over four fifths (85.3%, 275,651) of patients were waiting more than nine weeks for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment, compared with 84.9% (277,776) at 30th September 2020 and 78.4% (239,130) at 31 December 2019.
Over half (51.9%; 167,806) of patients were waiting more than 52 weeks for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment, compared with 47.5% (155,497) at 30th September 2020, and 36.7% (111,963) at 31 December 2019.
During the quarter ending December 2020, there were 66,055 attendances for a first outpatient appointment, an increase of 11.4% (6,746) on the number seen during the quarter ending September 2020 (59,309), and 43.1% (50,052) less than during the quarter ending December 2019 (116,107).
Health Minister Robin Swann has previosuly said the focus on Covid-19 has led to a “serious impact on waiting lists”.
Cancer Research UK’s said the statistics reflect the waiting times for all diagnostic tests in Northern Ireland, including several that are relevant to the diagnosis of cancer.
Margaret Carr, Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Northern Ireland, said: “The pandemic has had a devastating impact on cancer patients in Northern Ireland.
“The findings of this report, which highlights the ongoing backlog of people waiting to receive crucial tests and get a diagnosis, are deeply concerning.
“Waiting to find out if you have cancer is an anxious time for people, so clearing the backlog is essential.
“Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board is developing a plan for recovery of cancer services. The plan will be welcome, but it’s crucial the forthcoming Budget addresses the long-standing staff shortages which exist within cancer services. These must be tackled as a priority to ensure services are fit for the future.
“It’s important that patients know the health service is still open for business and staff are giving the best care they can. It’s essential that anyone who notices any changes to their body gets them checked out. Early diagnosis followed by swift access to the most effective treatment can be lifesaving.”
— to www.newsletter.co.uk