People with suspected bowel cancer are waiting up to six months for tests just to diagnose the deadly disease, placing lives at risk, it has been claimed.
Despite government targets stating such cases must be seen within two weeks, a prominent GP claims patients in the Western Health Trust are waiting up to half a year for a colonoscopy.
The procedure, which involves inserting a camera into the bowel to look for tumours, is carried out on patients who have been found to have blood in their stools - a symptom of bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in Northern Ireland and there are more than 1,000 new diagnoses and more than 400 deaths each year.
If bowel cancer is detected at an early stage there is a much greater chance that treatment will be successful.
Last year, the Department of Health rolled out a bowel cancer screening programme, hailing it as a major step in fighting the disease - claiming it would lead to early diagnosis and better outcomes for patients. However, Dr Tom Black - deputy chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee in Northern Ireland - said that patients' lives are being put at risk as the Western Trust struggles to meet the demand for diagnostic tests for the disease.
"I referred a patient for a colonoscopy as a red flag, which means I have serious concerns about that patient and they should be seen within a fortnight," he said.
"She still hadn't heard anything two months later so I chased it up with the Trust and was told even red-flag referrals were waiting five to six months for a colonoscopy.
"It isn't good enough. Patients are being failed. I am pretty certain this patient does not have cancer. I think she either has Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis but her quality of life is so bad due to this that I am currently treating her with strong steroids without a proper diagnosis.
"In terms of good patient care it is far from ideal."
It is understood there is currently a shortage of gastroenterologists in the Western Trust and the Health & Social Care Board has been made aware of the situation.
However, a spokesman from the Trust denied there is an issue regarding waiting times for colonoscopies.
He said: "Patients referred for routine (non urgent) colonoscopy are being seen within 21 weeks in the Western Trust. Patients who are red-flag urgent referrals are being seen within three to four weeks."
Under the Department's bowel cancer screening programme, men and women aged between 60 and 69 who are registered with a GP are invited to take part in the screening process.
This involves looking for traces of blood in the bowel motions. Samples are sent away and if positive, the person is asked to attend hospital for further tests - usually a colonoscopy - which is used to diagnose whether the patient has bowel cancer or any other condition, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.