Fewer than half of breast cancer patients being seen in target time
The number of breast cancer patients seen within the target time has dropped alarmingly in the past year, official statistics have revealed.
Less than half of suspected cases had a first assessment with a specialist inside 14 days in December.
Just 744 of the 1,503 cases were seen in the target time, compared to 96.3% (1,100 out of 1,142) 12 months earlier.
The Department of Health's target is for all urgent breast cancer referrals to be seen within two weeks.
The drop in cases being seen within the specified time has led to warnings that patients' health is being placed at risk.
The figures emerged after the department published its latest cancer waiting time statistics yesterday. They also show a quarter of all cancer patients are not beginning treatment within the target time of two months.
The Department of Health said 95% of cases should be seen within 62 days, but yesterday's statistics show that just 72% began their treatment within this period. Only 267 of the 370 cancer patients given an urgent referral in December started their treatment on time.
All five of Northern Ireland's health trusts missed the target for the last quarter of 2015. However, the 72% figure did represent an improvement on the 64% of patients who began treatment in October 2015.
A leading cancer charity voiced alarm at the delays.
Roisin Foster from Cancer Focus Northern Ireland said: "The continuing failure to meet targets set for cancer patients waiting for treatment is of major concern.
"In personal terms it brings increased anxiety to people with suspected cancer and their families.
"We believe that our health service is letting these people down at an already worrying time.
"Our message that early diagnosis and treatment saves lives is being compromised by these very worrying statistics.
"We know that our health trusts are already under extreme pressure and ask what support they will be receiving to help them tackle this worrying situation."
The charity has called on the Executive to produce a new strategy for cancer for Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health said it expects to see an improvement when January's figures are released later in the year.
A spokesman said a "significant increase" in referrals "impacted on performance".
"Where possible, trusts put additional clinics in place to help cope with the additional demand," he said. "However, the repercussions of such an increase take time to correct themselves."
Last month, figures from the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry showed there had been a dramatic rise in the numbers of women being diagnosed with breast cancer.
The number of women treated for the disease has risen by 53% overall in the past 20 years.
Experts have said the health system needs to prepare itself as the figures are set to climb.
of 1,503 cases of suspected breast cancer seen in target time