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Breast cancer treatment times in Northern Ireland rising alarmingly

Fears grow lives are being put at risk

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 26/06/2015

Mary Allen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012
Mary Allen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012

Delays in urgent breast cancer treatment has led to fears that "lives are being put at risk" as waiting times grow alarmingly in Northern Ireland.

The stark comments come as new figures reveal the growing crisis after Northern Ireland failed to meet any of its target times for the treatment of patients referred for suspected cancer. Government guidelines say 95% of patients should begin treatment within 62 days after an urgent GP referral.

Yet the latest figures show that in March only 72% of patients were seen within this timeframe. However there was a "frightening deterioration" in suspected breast cancer cases being treated within a two week period.

The number of patients first seen within 14 days following an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer dropped from 94.4% in January to 82.2% in March.

That means 934 of the 1,146 patients were seen on time and 212 women waiting too long to discover if they have cancer.

The DHSSPS said the Belfast Trust had experienced "increased demand alongside staffing issues".

According to Cancer Research, there are around 1,300 cases in women each year in Northern Ireland and around 340 deaths.

A report published this week by Target Ovarian Cancer said women in Northern Ireland with ovarian cancer have the lowest survival rates in the UK, Ulster Unionist Party health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson MLA said the figures show lives are being put at risk.

"A cancer diagnosis, or a case of suspect cancer, is a frightening time for the patient and their family. Being forced to wait well in excess of the official waiting times only compels that pressure."

Ms Dobson added: "It's clear there is a crisis in cancer diagnostic and treatment services.

"Early diagnosis and treatment is absolutely central to improving patient outcomes so it is disturbing that there are people possibly losing their lives as a result of avoidable or preventable delays in the health service."

Mary Allen (50), a breast cancer survivor from Ballymena, said it was vital to have early intervention. She said even waiting five days for test results were the "longest of her life".

Her cancer was detected on board Action Cancer's Big Bus in November 2012. She then went for a second mammogram at Antrim Area Hospital.

"The results of that day had been inconclusive. I had to go back in five days - those five days were the longest of my life, very stressful and worrying," she said.

A DHSSPS spokeswoman defended the current breast cancer survival rate in Northern Ireland stating that figures released through the EUROCARE 5 project in 2013 said it is the best in the UK and Ireland.

"While four of the five Trusts have maintained or substantially maintained the 100% standard since September 2014, performance in the Belfast Trust has deteriorated."

She added: "The Belfast Trust is committed to improving access to the Breast Service for women referred with suspect cancer and is working closely with the Health & Social Care Board to improve performance.

"The trust has experienced increased demand alongside staffing issues and additional resources have been allocated to enable the trust to better respond to demand.

"Additional capacity is being put in place to deliver an improvement in performance."

Background

Government guidelines say 95% of patients should begin treatment within 62 days after an urgent GP referral. Latest figures show that in March only 72% of patients were seen within this timeframe.

The number of patients first seen within 14 days following an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer dropped from 94.4% in January to 82.2% in March. That means 934 of the 1,146 patients were seen on time.

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