Patient safety is being endangered, it has been claimed, after new figures revealed that suspected urgent cancer cases here were not being treated hastily as waiting times grow alarmingly.
Government guidelines say 95% of patients referred for suspected cancer should begin treatment within 62 days after an urgent GP referral. But the latest figures show that, in June, only 69.5% of patients were treated on time.
Worryingly, of the 106 patients treated who waited longer than 62 days, 31 were diagnosed with urological cancer and 18 were diagnosed with lower gastrointestinal cancer.
Of 28 patients treated who had waited longer than 31 days, almost half (13) were diagnosed with urological cancer.
The figures do show a slight improvement in the number of patients with an urgent breast cancer referral seeing a specialist within 14 days compared to April.
The figures come in the same week former Health Minister Simon Hamilton was fiercely criticised for abandoning Northern Ireland's health service as a result of the political crisis at Stormont. Jo-Anne Dobson MLA described the situation as "severe".
"The publication of these latest frightening waiting times, that confirm definitively that people's lives are now being endangered, should be the clearest sign yet that the department needs a minister who comprehends the scale of the crisis and is prepared to take the action necessary to address it," she said.
"As every day passes that Simon Hamilton leaves the Health Department to drift, the problem is only getting worse, and now people will soon be paying with their lives."
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said she welcomed the steady improvement for the number of women referred urgently with suspected breast cancer who are being seen within 14 days.
"However, the ministerial target states that all women referred urgently with suspected breast cancer should be seen within 14 days, so, at 81%, today's figures show that we are still a way off meeting this target," she said.
"Most women know that a lump is a sign of breast cancer, but there are other signs and symptoms to look out for as well."
A DHSSPS spokeswoman said: "Underperformance against this standard remains a concern and the HSCB, together with Health and Social Care 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."
The number of patients that should begin treatment within 62 days
Number of patients treated on time
Number of patients who waited longer than 62 days