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Northern Ireland waiting time targets for urgent cancer treatment missed again

A third of patients are waiting too long for urgent cancer treatment to begin in Northern Ireland, official figures show.

Targets for waiting times have again been missed and campaigners said efforts to encourage early diagnosis had been compromised.

Last September 64% of patients with an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer started their first treatment within 62 days, down from 70% in July.

The target is 95% and all health trusts missed it for the last quarter, statistics from the Department of Health showed.

Roisin Foster, chief executive of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, said: "Our message that early diagnosis and treatment saves lives is being compromised by these very worrying statistics."

The percentage of patients first seen within 14 days following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer rose from 85% in July to 96% in September.

But Ms Foster said the continuing failure to meet targets for patients awaiting treatment was a major concern.

"We need targeted work to reduce cancer patient waiting times immediately, to lower patient anxiety and the fear that their cancer is progressing while they wait.

"We know that our health trusts are under extreme pressure.

"Waiting times have already been addressed as part of the Bengoa report and we want to see those recommendations implemented as soon as possible. For many cancer patients time is not a luxury they can afford."

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The Bengoa report was commissioned by ministers seeking advice on how to improve services, cut waiting lists and care for an ageing population. It said an increased number of emergency or unplanned but urgent admissions affected hospitals' ability to deal with elective or planned care, meaning longer waiting times as priority was given to urgent care.

Alliance Assembly member Paula Bradshaw called for a cancer strategy and a waiting list plan as well as a long-term shift towards primary care which would reduce referrals.

She added: "We heard at the start of this term there would be a joined-up approach and the minister would work together for the common good. What we actually have is delay and miscommunication. This comes at a real human cost."

A statement from the Patient and Client Council said it was concerned and disappointed.

"The health service needs to ensure not only timely treatment but also accurate information is provided to patients on when they will receive that treatment."

Health minister Michelle O'Neill said overall cancer survival rates were better than ever, improving from 43% in 1993-99 to 54% in 2005-09.

She added: "This improvement in survival is, in no small part, due to earlier diagnosis as well as access to better treatment and we therefore need to build on this.

"My focus is on ensuring that the trusts improve the performance of our existing high-quality cancer services so that patients receive the best possible service during the diagnosis and treatment of their condition."

She said excessive waiting times were unacceptable.

The Health and Social Care Board is working with trusts to reduce the number of patients waiting more than 62 days and cut the length of time all patients are waiting.

"I want this work to produce similar improvement to the performance that the trusts have achieved in respect of the waiting times for the 14-day target for urgent GP referrals for suspected breast cancer."

Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler said that the latest figures demonstrate that patients are "tragically coming to harm as a result of the crisis engulfing the health service".

Mr Butler, a member of Stormont’s Health Committee, said: "This latest publication of waiting times is once again difficult reading. Behind the blunt statistics lies a story of human distress, panic and concern.

"Cancer is a cruel disease and a diagnosis, or a suspicion of it, can come as a devastating blow to patients and their families.  The sooner it is detected and treatment begins, the better the chance patients have of a successful outcome. Therefore, the revelation that compared to the target of 95%, only 63.6% of patients in September commenced first treatment within 62 days following an urgent referral for suspect cancer is frightening.

"What really makes the current situation wholly unacceptable is the revelation that of all the patients waiting longer than 62 days for treatment in September 2016, over 30% were diagnosed with urological cancer and nearly 20% were diagnosed with skin cancer.

"It is unbelievable that in 2017 we are still urging the Minister to better focus her efforts on cancer prevention, early detection and timely treatment."

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