Minister for Health Simon Harris has promised that a new operating theatre built for scoliosis patients will open at Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin from April.

The opening of the operating theatre had been delayed due to staffing issues.

An RTÉ Investigates programme, Living On The List, broadcast last night revealed that the number of patients waiting for operations or medical procedures was significantly higher than published, and highlighted shortcomings in the way waiting lists were being processed.

In the Dáil this evening, Mr Harris repeated that he was ashamed and said the RTÉ programme brought home the genuine pain and suffering of patients who are waiting far too long for treatment.

The minister said the theatre would carry out 194 spinal operations.

Mr Harris also said that by June an additional orthopaedic surgeon will be in place at the hospital.

Agreement with the HSE was also reached that paediatric scoliosis waiting times will be a maximum of four months by end of the year.

The Minister for Health has also directed that the National Treatment Purchase Fund audit the practices in the hospitals highlighted in the individual cases in last night's programme.

It is very important that lessons are learnt to see exactly how each of those cases were handled, he said.

The minister met the Health Service Executive and the NTPF today about the disclosure that many more patients were awaiting treatment than had been thought.

The Dáil is to hold a special debate on the programme on Thursday morning.

Politicians and medical experts are demanding that the waiting list scandal be brought to an end.

In a statement, Crumlin hospital said the extra capacity as well as the overall HSE plan to address waiting times will help to reduce the waiting times and number of patients waiting for scoliosis treatment at the hospital.

Labour health spokesperson Alan Kelly said he does not accept that the NTPF/HSE should be auditing their own figures after 14 years of what his party claims is "misleading" the public and successive governments.

He said the party will push for an independent, quick audit of what has happened.

Political reaction to waiting list figures

The minister told the Dáil that the day case waiting list of over 18 months will be eliminated by the end of June for all day case procedures through the NPTF.

Mr Harris said that this will see over 2,000 patients begin to receive their treatment from March.  

RTÉ broadcast evidence showing there are at least two other significant waiting lists that are not published by the NTPF, which has responsibility for collating waiting list data.

The documentary also dealt with difficulties encountered by patients, adults and children, in need of operations.

The HSE has apologised to patients and accepted some delays were unacceptably long.

Following the programme, Minister Harris said he was "ashamed" and "heartbroken".

Speaking on RTÉ's Claire Byrne Live, Mr Harris said: "I don't think there's any sugar-coating of this, I don't think there's any possibility, or any point in anybody saying anything other than that this is ... this is wrong, this is something that as a country we can't stand over. It's something that I as minister for health can't stand over and it does make me feel ashamed."

Mr Harris said extra capacity was needed in the health service - citing staff numbers, beds and building new hospitals.

The Department of Health has confirmed that the current system for waiting lists was put in place in 2002 when the NTPF was established.

Fianna Fáil has said there is a need to get patients moving through the health system.

The party's health spokesman Billy Kelleher said "we are exhausted from talking about reform" and what is needed is output and delivery of service that puts patients first.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Kelleher said while there are clear management issues in the HSE, the lack of capacity in the hospital system is the real problem.

Mr Kelleher added that over recent years there has been a downgrading in the HSE in terms of capacity, out-put and productivity and it has resulted in the waiting lists growing longer and longer.

Sinn Féin's health spokesperson Louise O'Reilly said "the sad reality of these figures is that this is endemic of perpetual health crisis and one which is being concealed from public view by creative accounting and massaging of figures."

Labour's Alan Kelly said the public were tired of the lack of accountability and the minister needs to take a hard line with the HSE. 

He also called for a full investigation of how the waiting lists were established.


Hospital beds - the numbers

The PA Consulting Report on Bed Capacity for the HSE in 2008 said that Ireland would need to have 17,843 public hospital beds by this year.

Department of Health statistics show that the system currently has about 12,400 public inpatient and day beds.

The PA study projected that the health service would need 19,822 public hospital beds, including critical care beds by 2020.

However, it said that if Ireland moved to a system where care shifted from large hospitals to more community and home care, the acute bed need would fall to about 8,800 by 2020.

That system was termed a 'Preferred Health System' which the HSE called an 'Integrated Health System' and which it said it would move towards.

At the time, the HSE said that if the shift was fully achieved, Ireland would need 8,834 public hospital beds by 2020.

However, if it was only 25% achieved, Ireland would need 16,174 public hospital beds by 2020.

Ten years ago, the number of people on the national surgical and medical waiting list was 22,747 - according to NTPF figures.

By 2011, the number had increased to 28,850 patients.

At the end of last year, the national waiting list for inpatient or day case treatment had increased to 81,015.


System is 2,000 beds short, consultant says

Professor Paud O'Regan, Consultant Physician at South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel, said the national system is about 2,000 beds short and as a result cases are being delayed and beds are being lost by acute admissions.

Prof O'Regan said the end result is the awful stories that were on television last night.

He said that if enough money was being put into the system, it was being extremely badly managed and denied that consultants were not always available because they were occupied with private practices.

He said consultants were always available but they were not being given the opportunity to look after patients properly.

Orthopaedic Surgeon at Mayo General Hospital Derek Bennett has said that Ireland has produced some of the best physicians, nurses and health care professionals and exported them.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, he said there are low numbers of specialists in Ireland and it was not simply a question of throwing more money at the jobs, but rather making them attractive to those applying.

This included, he said, ensuring that surgeons have a staffed operating theatre and an outpatients' clinic available to them. 

Meanwhile, Orthopaedic Surgeon at Crumlin Children's Hospital Pat Kiely said none of the stories he saw on the RTÉ investigates programme surprised him.

He said Ireland is probably the lowest staffed country in western Europe when it comes to orthopaedics and population.

He said there is not the staff to deploy the two orthopaedic theatres in Crumlin fully and there are two days this week where the spinal surgery in the hospital is not in use.

Separately, there are 587 patients on trolleys, or wards, today waiting admission to a hospital bed, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.

The hospitals worst affected are University Hospital Limerick with 46 waiting, University Hospital Galway with 44 and Beaumont Hospital with 40.