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Thousands of Irish children suffer because of health care delays

By Cian Molloy - 17 December, 2017

The health and well-being of thousands of Irish children is suffering because of delays and under-resourcing in the Irish health care system, says the children’s charity Barnardos.

After reviewing waiting list data covering the last seven months, Barnardos is calling on the government to urgently address the issue of delays in child and adolescent mental health services and in speech and language services. The charity also says the government needs to end the regional discrepancies in the Irish health care system – the length of time that a child spends on a waiting list varies enormously depending on where that child lives.

Childhood is a time of rapid development, says Barnardos’ head of advocacy June Tinsley, “Untreated speech and language challenges or mental health difficulties can severely impact a child’s ability to communicate, to learn, to develop relationships and to function in the world. The damage caused by lengthy delays in accessing services cannot be understated. Tragically, the longer a child waits for an intervention the less likely it is that the treatment will be effective.  For a three-year-old who only has a few words, waiting a year for speech and language treatment is like waiting a lifetime.”

The charity welcomed the fact that the number of children waiting more than a year for speech and language assessment fell by more than a third between February and September this year. But it notes that while this has happened, the number of children waiting more than two years has increased by 11%.

According to Tinsley, combining assessment wait times with treatment wait times means that some children particularly those in Dublin South West, Kildare and West Wicklow could be waiting more than four years for treatment. She said: “It is clear that the volume of public speech and language services currently provided does not meet supply. The number of speech and language therapists in Ireland would have to double to meet the recommended levels of 35-60 cases per therapist.”

In the case of mental health services, in September this year there were 2,333 children on that waiting list, a decrease of 9% since February – but there has been a 20% increase in the number of children waiting longer than a year for their first visit.  In the Kerry/Cork area, the number of children waiting for mental health services help doubled in the seven months up to September.

“In an effort to combat these long waits and to save their children from unnecessary harm, those who can afford it, end up having to pay for private consultation,” said Tinsley. “We know from our research that children from low income families are far less likely to be in good health than their wealthier peers. A two-tier health system where a parent’s ability to pay determines their child’s access to treatment, deepens this divide and perpetuates disadvantage and inequality.”

One parent in Dublin told Barnardos, “We have put ourselves under unbearable pressure to pay for a private speech and language assessment for our four-year-old son because of the length of the waiting list for assessment.  We are not able to pay gas and electricity bills because we feel our only option is to continue paying €60 per half hour for private treatment.”

In short, Barnardos says the health, wellbeing and development of too many children is being compromised because of inefficiencies and resource gaps in our public health system.

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