Four patients who were given late cancer diagnoses were victims of inaction by NHS bosses who were “flying by the seat of their pants”, it has been claimed.
The Stormont health committee has heard the Western Trust was able to clear a backlog of 18,500 X-rays inside three months — when it stepped up efforts to address the problem after it emerged a patient had been sent home from hospital without being diagnosed.
The chief executive of the trust, Elaine Way, said management was aware of the developing problem and was taking steps to address it, but admitted additional measures were only put in place in July last year — when concerns were raised over missed cancer diagnoses.
It has emerged that one of the four patients affected by the backlog has since died while a second man took paracetamol for 11 months thinking the pain he was suffering was caused by arthritis. He is now terminally ill with lung cancer.
Michelle O’Neill, deputy chair of the committee, said she believes trust management could have acted quicker to stop patients suffering needlessly.
She said: “I believe this could have been prevented.
“They were aware of the problem but were riding by the seat of their pants hoping they would resolve the situation before anything went wrong.
“Unfortunately these four patients are the casualties. They were able to clear the backlog in three months. If you ask me, this could have been prevented.”
Ms Way was called to Stormont yesterday to explain how the build-up of X-rays was allowed to happen.
She said that the problems began when two consultant radiologists retired in June 2008 and the backlog developed over time as there were not enough radiologists to cope with the increased workload.
“Was I aware there was huge pressure within radiology? Yes, and that was due to a combination of staffing issues, increased demand, the change in system, but I also had an assurance there was a plan in place to make sure that could be managed.
“In July I was told there was a possibility of a serious adverse incident because two patients may have had a delayed diagnosis.”
The issue came to light last week when the Health and Social Care Board released the findings of a governance review of the Western Trust.
While the trust has refused to answer numerous questions over the X-ray shambles, relatives of two of the people affected have come forward to complain about the way their cases have been handled.
At the Stormont session, Ms Way also apologised for the suffering experienced by the four patients and their families.