OPERATIONS for patients suffering from ear, nose and throat-related illnesses have been cancelled in Northern Ireland's biggest health trust over the past six weeks due to a shortage of specialist nurses, The Irish News has learned.
Surgery to remove abscesses, lumps in necks and tonsils have been among those suspended in the Belfast trust amid a lack of 'recovery nurses' - the team who care for patients immediately after they come out of operating theatres.
Children with tonsillitis are among those potentially affected.
Senior medics in the speciality are reported to be frustrated with the delays and the impact they will have on patients.
ENT surgeons see more patients under the age of 13 than most other surgeons outside paediatrics. They also treat people with conditions that affect their voice, breathing and swallowing as well as those with head and neck tumours and leaking of brain fluids.
While the Belfast trust cases are classed as non-urgent there are concerns suspending treatment can have an adverse effect or even lead to more serious underlying diseases being missed.
The development comes amid of a wider staffing crisis in the nursing profession, with more than 1,500 jobs unfilled across the north.
The shortfall has led to health trusts relying on costly agency workers, with the Department of Health also setting up an overseas recruitment campaign over a year ago.
A Belfast trust spokeswoman did not answer queries about the shortage of recovery nurses, saying only: "While nursing recruitment remains a challenge, (we) continue an active recruitment programme to make every effort to recruit suitably trained nurses."
She confirmed that routine ENT surgical procedures have been "downturned" in "recent weeks".
"No routine surgeries have been scheduled as part of trust-wide planning for winter pressures. The decision to downturn elective surgeries is reviewed every week.
"It is not taken lightly, as we are acutely aware of the disruption it can cause to our patients. It is important to note that patients waiting surgery as part of cancer treatment are not impacted by postponement.
"Anyone who has an operation scheduled should expect this to proceed unless they are contacted directly by the Belfast trust to inform them otherwise. Where it is necessary to postpone any elective operation, we will make every effort to rearrange as soon as possible."
Dr George O'Neill, a Belfast GP, said many of his patients awaiting an ENT appointment with a hospital consultant have been informed they are on a three-year waiting list, while 'urgent' cases face a year-long delay.
"There is a always a risk that delaying surgery can impact on the patient's health and well-being. Children and young adults with tonsillitis for example can get recurrent bouts of the illness and have an inordinate amounts of time off sick from school," he said.
"Previously we were seeing huge delays for orthopaedic patients but now this has spread to other specialties like ENT and dermatology."
The trust spokeswoman disputed Dr O'Neill's claim about ENT waiting times for consultants, insisting there was a "72-week" delay for routine patients following a referral from their GP and a 12-week wait for those classed as urgent.
Seanín Graham | Irish Times
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