More than 200,000 first-time patients lost out on hospital plans last year as the pandemic pressure meant elective treatments were cancelled, new figures reveal.
Care was cancelled for 200,291 people going to their first out-patient or in-patient appointment.
The true scale of the problem is much higher as patients expecting repeat appointments were not captured by the HSE data.
These cancellations impact on waiting lists, causing them to spiral. Irish hospitals have cancelled procedures during the winter in the past, but this is the first time significant cancellations continued during the year.
March saw a shocking 25,895 outpatient procedures cancelled and 13,607 inpatient appointments cancelled. This means 39,502 people had their medical plans altered in just one month.
The figures, released to Cork East Labour TD Seán Sherlock by the HSE, show the silent impact of the pandemic.
He said: "It is concerning to see this amount of cancellations, notwithstanding the public health restrictions. The question now is what is the plan to make sure that these cancelled appointments are followed up on.”
Looking to the future, he said it is important these patients are not forgotten once the immediate threat from the pandemic lessens.
“It would be good to see an outline plan from the HSE that will be enacted once community transmission of Covid recedes, especially as the R rate has receded in recent days,” he said.
This could have a disastrous impact on some patients, especially older people waiting on crucial procedures, Stephen MacMahon from the Irish Patients Association said.
“These numbers of cancelled consultations and surgeries is a very very serious cause of concern to the Irish Patients Association," he said.
Mr McMahon said the focus on Covid is necessary but the impact on non-Covid care should be highlighted.
“With all the expressions of the importance of patient advocacy, as a respected stakeholder I have seen very little evidence of this politically or within the health care system,” he said.
HSE assistant National Director, Acute Operations Robert Kidd wrote in a letter released with the figures that the reductions were in line with the national action plan on Covid-19.
From May and over the summer, hospitals were able to offer procedures again but cancellations still continued. And from September when the second wave became evident, cancellations spiked again.
Hospitals were offered guidance from the Covid-19 Expert Advisory Group around how best to resume working with these patients.
In a worrying sign of the pressures even before the pandemic hit, January last year saw 14,329 new outpatients miss out on medical treatment and 4,003 inpatients at a time when up to 760 patients were on trolleys.
The number of cancellations in December while still extremely high was lower than the previous three months and reflects the time before the third wave hit at the end of the month.
In December 8,932 people referred for the first time to hospitals for out-patient care had their treatment cancelled and 3,204 in-patients.