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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
belfast or blind

'People are going blind': Bus of waitlisted cataract patients to journey up North for surgery

As of the end of June, there were 6,023 patients waiting for a cataract procedure.

AN 85-YEAR-OLD MAN will be among twelve people requiring cataract surgery who will travel from Cork to Belfast tonight to have their operations carried out under the cross-border directive.

Independent TD Michael Collins started organising buses back in 2017 for constituents who required treatment but were often facing year-long waiting lists. 

The Cork South West TD says the waiting list to get on his ‘Belfast or blind’ bus has “exploded” due to the effects of Covid-19 on the health service. 

As of the end of June, there were 6,023 patients across the country waiting for a cataract procedure.

Tonight’s bus, Collins’ 54th, will be the first one to travel across the border since February, “which is a long time for someone to wait to regain their full sight”. 

The buses are booked by Collins, paid for by the patients and, provided by a local bus company. Patients then get their money back under the cross border directive health care scheme. 

Working in conjunction with Kingsbridge private hospital in Belfast, all patients travelling North have been tested for Covid-19, Collins told C103′s Cork Today Show

Collins said that when patients arrive in Belfast, they must first check into a hotel where taxis will pick them for their individual consultations. The following day, taxis will again bring each person individually to the hospital for their procedures. 

“It’s costly and a little bit more difficult, but still, speaking to people they’re quite happy to pay,” he said. 

“The bottom line is people are going blind and there’s nothing worse. There’s an 85-year-old travelling tonight and he desperately needs his cataract done.

“I have people now on the waiting list telling me they’re blind in one eye and obviously now we’re looking to save the second eye. 

“I’m on the telephone trying to tease out with the person how bad their eyesight is, because the unfortunate hold-up has led to me picking and choosing who can and who can’t go which isn’t fair, but it’s the only way it can work at the moment.”

Waiting lists 

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly confirmed that there were 6,023 patients waiting for a cataract procedure in Ireland at the end of June, in a parliamentary response to a query from Cork North-Central TD Thomas Gould this week.

Of these, 1,039 are waiting over 9 months which represents a reduction of 76% when compared to July 2017, when there were 4,249 waiting over 9 months.

“Reducing waiting time for patients for hospital operations and procedures is a key priority for Government. In recent years, my Department has worked with the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund and made considerable improvements to access for patients waiting for high volume procedures including cataracts,” Donelly said. 

The issue of long waiting lists for cataract surgery has been highlighted on a number of occasions over the past few years. Other politicians such as Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae have also booked bus trips for constituents. 

Speaking in the Dáil last Thursday, Healy-Rae said it was “wrong” that he and others organise trips to the North and get the State to pay for those operations.

“We should not have to do that. I am ashamed that that service has to be organised by politicians. I would like Deputy Donnelly to be the Minister who stands up here one day and says that people will no longer have to go to the North to get a cataract removed or to get a hip operation carried out in the North because they are in such pain here.

“If we can pay to have it done in the North under the cross-border directive, why can we not get it here? We have excellent operating theatres and surgeons and the capability to do it here. Why can we not organise it? It does not make sense that on a Sunday morning, I can have a team of surgeons that will go into hospital in Belfast and operate on cataracts for as many as 20 people, while if one were to ask for that to be done here, we would be told that it cannot be done. Why can it not? 

Healy-Rae compared to the current set-up to having a digger for hire.

“It can work as well on a Sunday as on a Monday or a Saturday. It will work as well at 12 o’clock at night as at 12 o’clock in the day. I know there are safety concerns about an operating theatre in a hospital, but things can work safely at odd hours too.

“If there is a backlog of people waiting, it is like having a crowd waiting for sandwiches, where one would then have a crowd making the sandwiches, not just one person. It is the same thing when it comes to health. We have a crowd of people looking for healthcare and for hip and knee operations. They are in pain and they are waiting.” 

Deputy Collins argues said there is a need for an increase in cataract theatres in Ireland, particularly in Cork’s Bantry, Mallow and Mercy hospitals.

“I’ve looked at the other models in Europe there are no fancy setups at all, it’s a basic clean room fully equipped and that’s all it is. And that seems to be beyond the powers that be just for the last number of years. 

“In relation to cataracts, we’re not talking about open-heart surgery, we’re talking about cataract procedures that take 15-20 minutes and a person has their sight back. 

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