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Multiple Sclerosis: the wait to be seen

The mental and physical health of thousands of people living with Multiple Sclerosis in Northern Ireland is being put at risk by long waits for appointments with specialist doctors.

That is the warning issued today by the MS Society Northern Ireland who is calling for a “fundamental system change” to deal with a waiting list backlog and to ensure equal access to treatment and services for all patients.

The government targets are that no one should wait longer than 18 weeks for their first outpatient appointment and at least 60% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks. The latest measure of performance for the quarter ending September 30th 2015 shows that Northern Ireland as a whole did not meet either of the outpatient neurology appointment waiting time targets, nor did any of the individual health trusts.

As of September 30th 2015, 65% of 11,268 people waiting to see a neurologist had been waiting over 18 weeks. And 80% had been waiting over nine weeks. Patients are also facing long review appointment delays with some taking place over two years past their intended review date.

The MS Society said it has obtained figures which show that 36% of people are waiting longer than a year past their consultant recommended check up date in Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.  A leading neurologist told Detail Data that waiting times are “dreadful” and said more clinics, with multidisciplinary input, are needed to meet the demand. Dr Gavin McDonnell said there are no advantages to MS patients in delaying their diagnosis and treatment as brain and spinal cord function can be irreversibly lost.

Health Minister Simon Hamilton said the reason for lengthy waiting times for neurology appointments is similar to many other specialities – the demand for outpatient consultations currently exceeds capacity – and that £40m secured in November’s monitoring round is to be spent on tackling waiting lists. The Minister added that “significant annual investment” is made every year in MS specialist drugs for patients in Northern Ireland with the current budget for the service in excess of £11m. “The Health and Social Care Board is not aware of any delays in patients diagnosed with MS commencing treatment for MS,” he added.

In response, the MS Society stressed that waiting for initial diagnosis delays treatment starting. Jenny Ruddy from the MS Society Northern Ireland said: “There needs to be a fundamental system change to ensure that people can get an appointment when they are newly referred into neurology if they have a suspected diagnosis of MS. Also if they have MS, patients need to be reviewed by their consultant when the consultant needs to see them rather than wait two to three years after their clinically intended review date".

She said there is currently unequal access to services in Northern Ireland. “There is a bit of a postcode lottery of MS services in Northern Ireland. “We are launching our manifesto today and are asking for an investment in neurology to clear that backlog initially and also the creation of an MS network to ensure that people across Northern Ireland with MS can access the services they need when they need them and where they need them.”

Nicola Moore, Secretary of The Northern Ireland Neurology Charities Alliance (niNCA) and country director of Parkinson’s UK Northern Ireland says “the current waiting times for new and review appointments in neurology across Northern Ireland are having a significant impact on everyone living with a neurological condition. The Northern Ireland Neurology Charities Alliance would urge candidates for the Assembly election to pledge their support to end the wait for people with neurological conditions and to invest in and prioritise neurology services in the next assembly mandate.”

For the full story by Kathryn Torney, click here.