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Online hospital waiting times half reality

We’ve warned that data offered to the public in Northern Ireland is underestimating hospital waiting times, with real figures as much as twice those cited.

The Department of Health launched the My Waiting Times NI portal in May, stating that “patients in Northern Ireland can now use a new online system to check how long they are likely to wait for a specialist hospital appointment”. Initially providing average waiting times for a first outpatient hospital appointment, it now covers the latest waiting time information for inpatient and day case treatments.

Our analysis suggests the choices made in design of the Hub are systemically underestimating waiting times, with the same principles understood to apply across all branches of secondary care.

Currently the data quoted is calculated using the average of ‘active waiters’, calculated using all those currently on the waiting list at the date of data refresh. This figure therefore does not provide any clarity on how long an average patient will wait to be seen, as all those just added to the lists bring down overall waiting times.

Based on this flawed methodology average routine referrals for the Hospital Orthodontic Department in the Northern Trust have been estimated at as little as 11 weeks. Audits undertaken by frontline staff suggest figures closer to 26 weeks for initial assessment.

“Presenting waiting times in this way is simply disingenuous,” says Northern Ireland Hospital Dental Services Forum Chair, Darren Johnston. “It misrepresents what we are seeing in our clinics and is compounding the stress being experienced by both patients and clinicians.

“Sadly, these gross underestimates don’t just mislead patients, they also generate additional workload for staff.

“Our patients deserve to know how long they can expect to wait for care. As it stands this website won’t tell them.”

GP leaders have already joined us in expressing their concerns that this data doesn't seem to reflect reality.

The Department of Health have tried defending their choices. Offciiala have told the press the "methodology used for my My Waiting time NI ensures a comparative analysis and consistent approach to reporting waiting time information to patients and healthcare professionals.”

The reality is the figures provided do not represent the time expected to wait overall. We believe this is not only unhelpful and misleading; it flies in the face of the stated purpose of the portal.

The Department of Health must urgently review the metrics underpinning this portal, and ensure it reflects the real waiting times facing patients across all specialities. A more viable approach would be to publish, and routinely update, completed case wait times.