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'Outrageous' postcode lottery for urgent cancer referrals in Northern Ireland

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 08/01/2016

Former health minister Michael McGimpsey
Former health minister Michael McGimpsey

Delays for people with suspected breast cancer across Northern Ireland have been described as "intolerable" as new figures show women are facing a postcode lottery for urgent referrals.

The Department of Health figures worryingly reveal only 44% of women in the South Eastern Trust 'red flagged' by their GP were seen within 14 days for a first assessment with a breast cancer specialist in September. This was a huge drop within three months from 90% of women being treated urgently within two weeks.

A lack of specialist cancer nurses and a failure to replace cancer consultants after retirement have been blamed as two reasons for waiting times rising.

The Belfast Trust only managed to get 80% of women examined on time by a breast cancer specialist for a vital first appointment.

The figures also showed that during September 2015, 69.6%, - 249 - of patients suspected of having cancer across the province were treated within the Government target of 62 days.

The figures reveal that 109 people waited longer than 62 days. Of those:

  • 32 were later diagnosed with urological cancer.
  • 32 with gastrointestinal cancer.
  • 18 with skin cancer.
  • Eight with head/neck cancer.
  •  Seven with gynaecological cancer.
  •  Seven with lung cancer.
  • Three with breast cancer.
  • One with haematological cancer.

The UUP's Michael McGimpsey said: "That is the frightening picture of what is actually happening behind the statistics and it's outrageous. The latest publication of waiting times confirms that the local situation regarding delays in cancer services remains wholly intolerable. It is simply unacceptable that in 2015 people with suspected cancer are expected to wait patiently as pressures on the wider NHS mean that urgent tests very often take weeks or months to even take place."

The former Health Minister described the situation with breast cancer services as worrying.

"In addition, there also remains a major crisis in breast cancer services. Whilst the problem in the Belfast Health Trust, where previously only a quarter of women were being seen on time, has improved, a deep problem has now developed in the South Eastern. That trust, which includes major towns and cities such as Newcastle, Lisburn and Bangor, saw its performance against the target, which is 100% of women should be seen within 14 days, collapsing from 90% to 44% in the space of only three months.

"Not having enough specialist cancer nurses and not replacing cancer consultants when they retire are all problems that can be addressed."

A Health Service spokeswoman said the figures indicated an increasing incidence of disease placing services under pressure.

"The number of patients being treated for cancer following an urgent referral is increasing, up 6% for the first six months of 2015/16 compared to the same period last year, with the number treated within 62 days up slightly less by just over 3%.

"More people are being seen in clinics, up 16% for the first six months of 2015/16 compared to the same period last year, with nearly 40% more people being seen within 14 days. The falls in performance in the Belfast and South Eastern Trusts are being addressed."

The spokeswoman said it expected additional investment from the HSC Board this year to support additional clinics "as well as further investment next year which will support the delivery of this target".

"The HSCB, together with trusts, is continuing to focus on reducing the number of patients who are waiting in excess of 62 days and a reduction in the length of time patients are waiting. Departmental officials will continue to monitor progress closely."

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