An investigation into communication with patients on healthcare waiting lists

We have begun an own initiative investigation into how Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care Trusts communicate with patients on healthcare waiting lists.

The decision follows inquiries sent to the Trusts and the Department earlier this year, in which Ombudsman Margaret Kelly stated that she was considering an investigation.

After a detailed look at the responses from these bodies, as well as a review of a number of complaints brought to the Ombudsman’s Office, we have decided that an investigation should be carried out to see if the system is working in the best interests of patients.

The investigation will look in detail at the communication provided to patients waiting for medical care. It will examine whether patients are told;

  • if they have been added to a waiting list,
  • if their case is classed as ‘urgent’ or ‘routine’, and;
  • how long they might have to wait.

It will also look at whether and how often patients are updated.

As well as looking at patterns of previous complaints made to the Ombudsman’s Office, evidence will also be taken from members of the public via an online survey.

Speaking about the investigation, Ms Kelly said;

“Patients waiting for appointments, for example to see a consultant or to have an operation, need to be kept informed during this time.  Although the issue of lengthy waiting lists has long been an issue of concern, my focus in this investigation is on the communication between the Trusts and their patients.  

Based on complaints to my Office, as well as information received from the Trusts, I am concerned that patients are not getting the information they need.  While Trust guidelines stress the importance of good communication, what sometimes seems to be happening is that patients simply have no idea of when they might be seen, or even whether they have been added to a waiting list.  This can have an effect on their physical and mental wellbeing.

The investigation will look at the current policies in place, including guidance issued by the Department of Health and whether they are being consistently applied across the Trusts.

The Ombudsman’s final investigation report, which may include recommendations to the Department of Health and the Trusts, will be made public upon completion.

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