Big rise in waiting lists at UL hospitals during pandemic

Professor Brian Lenihan

OUTPATIENT waiting lists at the University of Limerick Hospitals Group increased significantly during the Covid pandemic.

The scale of the increase was highlighted at a virtual media briefing hosted by the Hospitals Group yesterday when it was revealed that the number of outpatients waiting for a first consultation rose by almost 20 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

The Hospitals Group has started rescheduling deferred outpatient appointments and surgeries, but it did not give specific timelines on when this would be completed.

UL Hospitals Group Clinical Director Professor Brian Lenihan said the group, which runs six hospitals in Limerick, Clare and north Tipperary, accounted for nine per cent of all healthcare activity in the country between 2020 and 2021.

He said that nationally, there were 617,448 patients, including 83,377 children, awaiting a first consultation at the end of December 2021.

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More than 153,000 of them were waiting 18 months or more for an outpatient appointment.

The number of outpatients waiting for their first consultant appointment in the Mid West rose from 46,675 in 2019 to 55,977 in 2022, although these numbers remained static between 2020 and 2021.

“The UL Hospitals Group saw an increase in its outpatient waiting list due to the pandemic particularly between 2019 and 2020.  During that time there was a 19.5 per cent  increase in the number of patients awaiting a first consultation – or just over 9,000 patients,” Prof Lenihan added.

The numbers waiting for 18 months or more also rose sharply, from 12,109 in 2019 to 20,449 in 2021. However the number of outpatient attendances across the group declined from 217, 981 in 2019 to 183,855 in 2021.

“The biggest effect on waiting lists can be seen on those waiting more than 18 months for their first outpatient clinic and that’s understandable given the reduction in the number of outpatient clinics due to Covid.

“When we look at the overall numbers, we can see we have reached a fairly steady state, and the focus for 2022 will be on those waiting more than 18 months through a number of initiatives,” Prof Lenihan explained.

“Virtual clinics and telemedicine became a feature of the pandemic, with 24.4 per cent of patients having their first consultation virtually in 2020 and 22.1 per cent of outpatients appointments undertaken online in 2021.

“Online consultations proved extremely beneficial and will continue to be a feature of our scheduled care strategy going forward”, added Prof Lenihan.

He said the group focused on the long waiting lists in orthopedics, rheumatology, dermatology and pain management, and that an additional 4,435 patients were were seen in 2021 through the National Treatment Purchase fund (NTPF) as well as 5,657 through the Advanced Clinical Prioritisation initiative.

These were driven by “additional recruitment of consultants, non-consultant hospital doctors, advanced nurse practitioners, clinical specialist nurses, extended scope physiotherapists, as well as clerical and administration staff”.

The number of attendances at UHL’s emergency department – the only one in the mid west – increased by more than 10,000 in 2021. However, inpatient discharges at the hospital also increased by 1,971 during the same period.

Day cases declined during the pandemic, from 42,563 in 2019 to just over 38,000 in 2020 and 202).

The number of births at University Maternity Hospital Limerick increased by 145 in 2021.

Describing the maternity hospital as “not fit for purpose”, UL Hospitals Group chief executive Colette Cowan said that at the height of the pandemic, a number of babies had to be transferred to other neo natal units due to reduced staff numbers due to Covid-19.

She said the group hopes to build a new €250 million maternity hospital but this has yet to be approved by the Department of Health.