It is recognised that waiting times for scheduled appointments and procedures have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. While significant work continues to positively impact on waiting times and improve pathways to elective care, acute hospitals have been impacted by operational challenges arising from surges in cases related to the Delta and Omicron variants.
The HSE has confirmed to the Department that patient safety remains at the centre of all hospital activity and elective care scheduling. To ensure services are provided in a safe, clinically-aligned and prioritised way, hospitals are following HSE clinical guidelines and protocols.
The Department of Health continues to work with the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) to identify ways to improve access to care, including through increased use of private hospitals, funding weekend and evening work in public hospitals, funding “see and treat” services, providing virtual clinics, and increasing capacity in the public hospital system.
In recent years, my Department has worked with the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) to improve access for patients waiting for high volume procedures, including cataracts. Ophthalmology services are provided throughout all hospital groups in the country, with cataract removal one of the key procedures carried out as part of this specialty.
A key development in improving access to Ophthalmology services was the opening of a stand-alone high-volume consultant-led cataract theatre by the University of Limerick Hospital Group in Nenagh Hospital in 2018, with the intention that it would facilitate patients from surrounding geographical areas to avail of their treatment there. The impact of such initiatives can be seen in the reduction in the waiting times to access cataract procedures since 2018. At the end of February 2022 there were 5,043 patients waiting for a cataract procedure compared to 6,276 in February 2019.
The 2022 Waiting List Action Plan, which was launched on the 26th of February, allocates €350 million to the HSE and NTPF to reduce waiting lists. Under this plan the Department, HSE, and NTPF will deliver urgent additional capacity for the treatment of patients, as well as investing in longer term reforms to bring sustained reductions in waiting lists.
The plan builds on the successes of the short-term 2021 plan that ran from September to December last year. The 2021 plan was developed by the Department of Health, the HSE and the NTPF and was driven and overseen by a senior governance group co-chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Health and the CEO of the HSE and met fortnightly.
This rigorous level of governance and scrutiny of waiting lists has continued into this year with the oversight group evolving into the Waiting List Task Force. The Task Force will meet regularly to drive progress of the 2022 plan.
This is the first stage of an ambitious multi-annual waiting list plan, which is currently under development in the Department of Health. Between them, these plans will work to support short, medium, and long term initiatives to reduce waiting times and provide the activity needed in years to come.
The NTPF have advised that they have provided funding for a number of insourcing initiatives to reduce Ophthalmology waiting lists at the University of Limerick Hospital Group in 2022 and to date in 2022, 2,500 patients have been approved for treatment through these initiatives.