Wed 10 Jul 2002
By JULIA HORTON Health Reporter
HUNDREDS of suspected victims of crippling brain disorders are waiting up to eight times longer than they should to see a hospital consultant in Lothian - leaving some patients without help for 18 months.
Patients referred by their GP to a neurologist at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh for an expert diagnosis have to wait up to 46 weeks for a first appointment.
At St John’s Hospital in Livingston, the wait is 75 weeks, or 18 months - more than eight times the nine-week target set by Lothian NHS Board.
As a result, suspected victims of conditions such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis are left in "distress" for months, unsure whether their pain is caused by a brain disorder, and unable to start treatment without a clear diagnosis. The "unacceptable" figures sparked accusations today that brain disorder victims were being neglected.
They also brought renewed calls by the Scottish Parliament’s health committee for greater Scottish Executive investment in neurology. The committee’s calls were backed by Lothian health chiefs, who blamed the waiting times on nationwide staff shortages.
A spokeswoman for Epilepsy Action Scotland said: "We did a study on this issue last year and things do not seem to have improved. People referred to a consultant have to live with the fact that they could have another seizure and they still won’t know if it is caused by epilepsy or something else until they actually see the consultant.
"If someone had a heart attack they would not be expected to wait anywhere near so long . Waits of these lengths are very stressful and can make people’s conditions worse."
Margaret Smith, Lib Dem Edinburgh West MSP and convener of the health committee, said: "People whose GPs refer them to consultants have often been suffering from symptoms for years beforehand because these conditions are difficult to diagnose. The last thing they need is a further period of anxiety.
"The national shortage of neurologists needs to be addressed. But in the short term the committee has suggested that the Executive invests in specialist neurology nurses who could be trained in a fraction of the time. "
A spokeswoman for patient watchdog Lothian Health Council said it was "very concerned" about the waiting times.
She said: "Patients in West Lothian are waiting significantly longer than others in Lothian and it seems an unfair expectation that they should have to travel to Edinburgh to be seen sooner. We urge NHS Lothian to address the unacceptable waiting times and ensure that an accessible and equitable service is provided for patients across all Lothian." There are around 700 people on the Lothian waiting list, who will be seen by one of nine neurologists at the Western or St John’s.
Statistics for May reveal that the waiting list at St John’s has been 75 weeks for several months. The highest waiting list to see a consultant at the Western was 46 weeks, with waits of over nine weeks to see all bar one of the consultants.
A spokeswoman for Lothian University Hospitals NHS Trust, which is responsible for neurology waiting lists at the Western and St John’s, said: "Waiting times for routine neurology outpatient appointments are a national issue. We’re in the same position as everyone else. The Association of Neurologists of Great Britain has recommended to the Government that substantially more neurologists are required. We support that."
The health board said an ongoing review of all Lothian waiting lists due to end in a few months would lead to recommendations for action.
The Scottish Executive said consultant numbers were rising and pledged
"sustained" investment in training, recruitment and retention.