NINETEEN patients have died this year waiting for first-time appointments for chronic pain treatment.
Campaigners say the figures are an indication of how the NHS is struggling to see patients, and warn several deaths may well be suicides.
They believe the number of suicides is not being recorded, despite links between chronic pain and suicide, because it would “frighten the public”.
Figures for the first three months of the year show seven patients died within Greater Glasgow & Clyde, four in Lothian, and three in Ayrshire & Arran. One patient died waiting for a chronic pain appointment in each of the Borders and Lanarkshire health board areas.
One of the worst-hit areas proportionally was Grampian which had three deaths, and at 42 weeks, has the longest waiting times for treatment.
Chris Bridgeford, 58, a former banker from Forres, who suffers with complex regional pain syndrome, said: “I hope these shocking figures act as a wake-up call to government as they show just how bad waiting times are across Scotland for chronic pain sufferers.
“I believe some of those deaths may well be suicides. If the Government really was serious about sorting the problem, they would be insisting suicides are counted so we can get the true picture of suffering across Scotland.
“At the moment, nobody has been told to collect those figures and I believe the only reason for that is because they would frighten the public.”
Chris, who runs campaign group Affa Sair, said the government attitude to suicide was “glib”. He added that Public Health Secretary Aileen Campbell, when asked about the Government’s response to delays in pain treatment leading to suicide attempts, had spoken about the mental health support on offer and also advised people to call the Samaritans.
Chris said: “When you are facing waiting almost a year for pain treatment and you are in such agony and despair, that’s the last thing you want to hear. The Samaritans are not responsible for NHS waiting times, the Government is.”
Almost one in five patients was not seen within the maximum 18-week target for pain clinics set by the Government.
Health Secretary Shona Robison pledged an extra £4.9 million to ease waiting times, but NHS Grampian has used just £35,000 for pain clinics despite having the worst record at more than 42 weeks for a first-time appointment.
Figures show 83% waited up to a year to be seen, and more than half (54%) waited even longer.
Elizabeth Barrie, 47, from East Kilbride, who twice tried to take her own life after being forced to wait almost two years for painkilling injections for a back injury, has decided to go private rather than face endless waiting times.
She said: “Rather than place my life at risk again because not getting the treatment prescribed to me left me in despair as well as agony, I’ve decided to use all my savings and get treatment privately.
“It’s disgraceful that after paying into the health service all my working life, I’ve had to take this step.
“I cannot put myself and my family through the horror again.”
Miles Briggs, Scottish Conservative health spokesman, said: “It is a shocking indictment that 19 chronic pain patients in a short period have died while waiting for treatment. This should act as yet another wake-up call to ensure chronic pain patients across Scotland can access the services they so desperately need.”
NHS Ayrshire & Arran said it “sincerely apologises” to those waiting “longer than acceptable”, and say they have brought in improvements.
A spokeswoman said: “In January 2017, 648 patients were waiting over 12 weeks. This week, this is reduced to 125 patients. While we accept this is not ideal, it will continue to improve.
“While we cannot comment on the details of individual cases, we’d like to emphasise that in some cases, patients who are referred to the Pain Management Service have life-limiting and life-threatening conditions and may also be receiving end-of-life care.”
Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson, said: “The chronic waiting times standard has not been met since the government began regularly reporting performance, and there are clearly issues in certain health boards, such as Grampian.
“These figures are simply not good enough and that is why Labour has called for a review of chronic pain waiting times in Scotland.”
A spokesman for NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde said: “We have an ageing population with patients living longer with pain issues and serious health conditions which sadly results in patients dying unrelated to their chronic pain.
“Patients are referred to the pain management service when they have a long-term chronic condition which requires support to help manage their pain.”