In a reply to a Dail question recently, the HSE stated that 54,789 children were waiting for an outpatient consultation at the end of May.
Of that number, 17,639 have been waiting for the appointment for more than a year and 10,541 for at least 18 months. 2,000 of those children have been waiting for a year to see a heart specialist. The number of “long waiters” — waiting for more than 18 months with conditions that include orthopaedic, heart and vision problems — have soared 17-fold since 2016.
In the specific case of eye problems — often quite minor — the HSE admitted in January that over 18,000 children have been waiting for “some period of time” for ophthalmic treatment, with about 10,000 of them waiting longer than 12 months.
Meanwhile, 235 children with scoliosis are still waiting for orthopaedic surgery. So urgent are their cases that the HSE is transferring some of them to UK hospitals.
The list goes on, caused by a shortage of consultants paediatricians (there are only 382 in Ireland and another 205 registrars and trainee registrars) and hospital beds. The management of the HSE has not kept up with our overall growing population.
So what can parents do to avoid long treatment queues, and serious conditions, let alone minor ones like an eye squint, constant throats infections, worrying posture, hearing or dental problems becoming much more serious ones?
The most obvious solution in a country with a two-tiered health system is to buy private health insurance for your children when they are healthy. (Pre-existing conditions are subject to waiting times.) It is not expensive at c€250 a year for a very good policy and even less than €150 for a very basic one.
Which is exactly what I tweeted last week (@JillKerby) in response to these latest worrying waiting lists. The usual nay-sayers were onto me quickly: not everyone can afford even that amount, one tweeted, (though I had already noted that private health insurance is clearly unaffordable if you are long term unemployed, homeless, or in serious debt.)
But I also added that even where a family cannot afford to insure adults and children (a child must be linked to an adult policy) a grandparent, godparent, other relative or even a friend can add your child to their plan and you then reimburse them the €250, an sum “that everyone can save over the course of a year”.
I also received an interesting response from a GP: “Even having private cover wouldn’t help as there are no private paediatric hospitals. Also, most of my patients only use their private cover for diagnostic tests because they can’t afford consultation fees for consultants.”
This doctor was correct in that there are no private paediatric hospitals. Nor are there private rooms at the children’s hospitals except for isolation cases. But privacy isn’t why parents buy private health insurance; they buy it to get timely access to medical tests and treatment and to avoid the endless, waiting lists and the frighteningly high rates of infection in public hospitals.
I checked with both health insurers and some of the 19 private hospitals about their paediatric services. Nearly all of them offer a range of general and specialist paediatric services, mostly outpatient diagnosis and treatments for children usually aged up to 14-16.
Nearly all of the hospitals in the Bonsecours group have paediatric consultants on staff and the Cork hospital even has a paediatric ward. The Mater Private, Blackrock and the Beacon Hospital also offer extensive services, including overnight surgical treatment for children. The bigger hospitals also offer daytime A&E access. The private mental health services hospital, St John of God’s in Dublin, has a dedicated adolescent unit, the Ginesa Suite.
Most paediatric private consultants are also attached to the public children’s hospitals — there are only 10 exclusively private paediatricians operating according to the HSE’s 2017 Review of the Paediatrics and Neonatology Medical Workforce in Ireland.
The sickest children nearly always go to the top of the queue. But the only way you can ever know if your ill child will even be able to avoid the horrendous waiting list to even be diagnosed, is to ask.
Your insurer or broker can tell you exactly what access and benefits your existing plan pays. The private consultant, hospital or clinic can outline exactly what the charges will be. As the GP on my tweet-line suggested, you may have to dig a little deeper to cover all medical expenses that are not covered. But if you think it might be a good idea, your first step should be to contact a good, specialist broker.