Public patients referred by their GP for a hospital outpatient appointment with a consultant face waiting times of up to four-and-a-half years depending upon which part of the country they live in, the Sunday Tribune has learned.
And the true situation could be even worse as some of the figures, which were updated on the HSE website last week and cover periods from December to April of this year, are already some months out of date due to the recent industrial action in the HSE.
The figures reveal that public patients have to wait an average of 1,670 days, or some four-and-a-half years, for a routine ear, nose and throat (ENT) outpatient appointment with a consultant at Kerry General Hospital.
At the Mid Western Regional Hospital, Limerick, the average waiting time for an ENT appointment is 1,033 days, while in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, it is 912 days.
In Waterford Regional Hospital it is 880 days, at University College Hospital Galway it is 821 days, while in Beaumont Hospital it is 314 days.
At Tallaght hospital –which was at the centre of a major scandal earlier this year after thousands of GP referral letters went unopened – the average waiting time is 300 days.
This compares with an average waiting time of 56 days at Sligo General Hospital and 84 days at St Vincent's in Dublin.
Elsewhere, the figures show that patients seeking a routine surgical appointment with a consultant – covering areas such as neurosurgery, breast surgery, open heart surgery and gastrointestinal surgery – face an average wait of 1,276 days at the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise.
At University Hospital Galway the equivalent figure is 611 days, while at MWR Limerick it is 451. At Kerry hospital the average waiting time is 293 days, at Waterford Regional it is 234 days, and at Letterkenny General it is 207.
This compares with average waiting times of 22 days at Louth County Hospital, and 28 days at St Vincent's.
Elsewhere, patients seeking more general outpatient appointments with a consultant – covering areas such as cardiology, neurology, obstetrics/ gynaecology, radiotherapy and colonoscopy – face an average 531-day wait at MWR Limerick. At UH Galway the figure is 289 days, at Letterkenny General it is 259, and at South Infirmary in Cork it is 230 days.
Dr Ronan Boland, a Cork GP who chairs the Irish Medical Organisation's General Practice committee, said the length of delays around the country was "utterly unjustifiable in any responsive, functioning health system".
He said that due to their workload, many consultants are forced to prioritise urgent cases for assessment. This meant patients seeking a consultation for non-life-threatening illnesses such as varicose veins were often pushed to the back of the queue.
"Depending on where you are in the country, a GP may have access to a very good referral service in one clinical speciality but face significant waiting times in another speciality," he said.
A HSE spokeswoman acknowledged that there were clearly some "black spots where there are particularly severe issues, and these need to be tackled".
The medical lottery: Consultant waiting times (in days)