Patients suspected of having cancer are now having to wait twice as long for initial tests, delaying potentially life-saving treatment.
Some of Northern Ireland’s top doctors have warned that Government targets on cancer care cannot be met — as waiting times for diagnosis and treatment continue to rocket.
In the latest shocking claims to hit the health service — which has sparked fears the NHS waiting list system is spiralling out of control — members of the British Medical Association (BMA) have raised serious concerns over cancer care in Northern Ireland.
And the founder of an ovarian cancer charity has also called for action on waiting lists, explaining that patients are having to “beat down the doors of the hospital” to get a review appointment.
Jim Wells, chair of the Stormont health committee, said he is “extremely concerned” by the development given that early diagnosis is key in treating cancer.
Dr Allen McCullough from the BMA (NI) General Practitioners’ Committee (GPC) has revealed one patient waited eight months after seeing a consultant before they were diagnosed with bowel cancer — despite the fact they were supposed to be a priority.
“You have to question whether the patient is really at the centre of the NHS when you look at waiting times,” he said.
“A delay like that undoubtedly affects the patient experience and can ultimately affect the outcome for the patient. The problem with waiting lists is certainly not improving, in fact it is getting worse.”
Dr Brian Dunn, chair of the GPC, said he has been told by medical records staff that the wait for a first appointment with a consultant is now four weeks.
It is during these appointments that a patient can be assessed by a specialist who decides whether further investigation is required.
“I saw a patient who I thought may have oesophageal cancer so I put a red flag referral through for them to see a consultant,” explained Dr Dunn.
“When the patient didn’t hear anything they came back to me and when I chased it up I was told red flag referrals are now four weeks instead of two.
Maureen Clarke, who established cancer charity Julie Clarke’s Angels of Hope, has also hit out at the waiting list system: “Review appointments are a big issue for cancer patients. I am constantly hearing from women who are worried because they can’t get a review appointment.
“If they are supposed to get an appointment within three months they are waiting six months, and if they are supposed to get an appointment within four months they are waiting eight.
“Even then, the only way they actually get a review appointment is by literally beating down the door of the hospital and by making a nuisance of themselves. It’s not good enough.”
Waiting times for hospital appointments are rising steadily. The Government has strict timetables for first outpatient appointments and surgery but these are often now being breached and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey blames dwindling finances. However, the British Medical Association said doctors should be given more say over how waiting lists are handled.