• Figures from the Department of Health (DoH) suggest that roughly 545k total cases are on inpatient or outpatient waiting lists.
  • 545k people would be more than one in four of the population of NI – but waiting lists count cases not individuals and a person may be on more than one list.
  • DoH holds no data on the total number of individuals who are on hospital waiting lists. Officials hope the health service’s ongoing shift to digital records will provide this information in future.

On 30 November, in a party press release, Sinn Féin claimed that “more than 1 in 4 people here are waiting for an inpatient or outpatient appointment.”

The words were attributed to Newry and Armagh MLA Conor Murphy – however, the direct quotes from him in the press release said something slightly different, so it is unclear whether the claim itself is his or comes from party communications.

FactCheckNI contacted Mr Murphy and Sinn Féin for further detail on their source for this claim, but received no response.

The press release was in response to fresh Department of Health (DoH) figures on waiting lists.

However, while around 545,000 cases are currently sitting on inpatient or outpatient waiting lists, that does not mean that 545,000 people are on those lists – because one person can be on several lists at the same time.

Based on the available information, it is unknown whether the number of people waiting for an inpatient or outpatient appointment is more than a quarter of the total population.

  • Figures

The figures referred to in the Sinn Féin press release were the DoH’s quarterly outpatient, inpatient and day case waiting times statistics, published on 30 November last year. According to those figures:

  • 428,858 patients were waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment.
  • 115,929 patients were waiting for inpatient admissions (including day cases) to hospitals.

Adding those two numbers together suggests that 544,787 patients are waiting for an inpatient or outpatient appointment.

Northern Ireland’s population is 1,910,500, according to the latest published estimates from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, and a crude piece of division (545,000/1.91m) might lead you to conclude that around 28.5% of the population are on a waiting list.

But there’s a problem with this.

  • Double counting

Fundamentally, there is no single outpatient or inpatient (or day case) waiting list. The numbers quoted in the DoH press release are the aggregates of all the different outpatient and inpatient waiting lists respectively – oncology, neurology, urology and more.

The same person might be on more than one waiting list, meaning the same individual appears two or more times in this overall number of 545,000.

A better word to describe what the figures for these aggregated waiting lists are actually counting would be cases, rather than patients (the word used by the DoH itself).

It is perfectly clear that an individual might be the subject of several cases, but it makes less sense to say that a single person could in fact be multiple “patients”.

  • Local data

Recent research by NHS England suggests that a significant proportion of people on a waiting list will, in fact, be on multiple lists.

When it comes to Northern Ireland, this information does not currently exist. No official figures are currently held about the number of individual people on one or more waiting lists, although a DoH spokesperson told FactCheckNI they strongly hope that the health service’s new digital system – encompass, which began its roll out in November – will ultimately provide better data on this issue.

For these reasons, the claim in question – that more than one in four people in Northern Ireland are on an inpatient or outpatient waiting list – is unsubstantiated.
It might be worth noting that Sinn Féin are not the first people to make this error (which does involve some fine distinctions). For instance, the NI Audit Office used similar language in a report last October, saying that waiting lists were counting “people” as opposed to cases.