I thank Deputy Rabbitte for raising this matter. It is quite timely because improving access to hospital appointments and procedures is a key commitment of Government and of hers. As a result of some of the work we have done together in recent budgets I hope to publish the joint Department of Health, HSE and National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, scheduled care access plan 2019 shortly. This will set out commitments aimed at improving access for patients waiting for hospital operations or procedures. We have made a lot of progress on that side over recent months and years. It will also set out commitments for patients waiting this year for a first outpatient appointment, in keeping with the HSE national service plan and the increased funding totalling €75 million given to the NTPF this year.
Access to outpatient services remains a significant challenge although we have seen significant reductions in the number of people waiting for an operation or procedure, but outpatients remain the big challenge. That is what we need to focus on. In 2019, more than 3.3 million patients will attend HSE outpatient clinics while the NTPF will fund an additional 40,000 first outpatient appointments.
The outpatient waiting list figures for the end of December for University Hospital Galway show that there were more than 39,000 patients waiting for a first appointment, 71% of whom were waiting 12 months or less. These numbers are still far too high. There has been some stabilisation of the waiting list compared with December 2017.
Last year I met the CEOs of all hospital groups, including the Saolta hospital group, which has responsibility for Galway, and asked them to come up with outpatient initiatives, including the use of virtual clinics to address outpatient waiting lists so that we can fund new initiatives this year. Some progress has been made by the Saolta hospital group as a result of new initiatives, including an 11% reduction in the number of patients waiting in excess of nine months for an ear, nose and throat, ENT, appointment, a 30% reduction in those waiting over nine months for a rheumatology appointment, and a 42% reduction in the number of children waiting more than nine months for a paediatrics appointment. The Deputy's question is timely because we are finalising the outpatients plan, and in light of her raising this issue, I will specifically and personally consider the issues at University Hospital Galway and make sure that Saolta is bringing forward plans to benefit from the additional outpatient funding available in 2019.