Calls for cancer strategy in Northern Ireland as vital waiting-list targets missed
The Department of Health has failed to meet all three of its waiting time targets for cancer patients - with just 68% of those with "urgent" referrals starting treatment within 62 days, shocking figures reveal.
Falling significantly short of the 95% target, the December 2016 rate had also dropped from 72% during the same period the previous year.
The department also failed to meet its target for every urgent breast cancer referral to be seen within 14 days with just 1,107 patients of 1,211 - 91% - seen on time in December.
Worryingly, just 39% of urgent breast cancer cases were seen within two weeks in the Southern Health Trust.
The overall rate fell from more than 99% in October but was up significantly from the same period the year before. Back then fewer than half of patients with an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer were seen within two weeks.
The ministerial target for treatment following a decision to treat fell short in December too, with 96% of patients being seen within 31 days - 2% under the official goal of 98%.
Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Roy Beggs warned of a crisis in the system.
"Whilst it is clearly a failure of policy that not one of the three cancer targets have been met at any stage over any of the last three months, the bigger tragedy is what this meant for the patients concerned," he said.
"Cancer is a disease that cruelly thrives during a period of vacuum, so the sooner it is detected and treatment begins, the better the chance patients have of a successful outcome.
"What really makes the current situation wholly unacceptable is the revelation that of all the patients waiting longer than 62 days for treatment in December 2016, over 38% were diagnosed with urological cancer. We have no way of knowing just what actual impact these delays had on the patients affected."
Margaret Carr from Cancer Research UK said: "A consistent inability to meet these targets show us cancer services in Northern Ireland are failing some patients.
"Cancer is the leading cause of death in Northern Ireland. The lives of patients depend on swift, efficient and effect access to cancer services. Every extra day of waiting is stacking the odds in cancer's favour.
"Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without an up-to-date cancer strategy.
"With the number of people being diagnosed with cancer rising, a strategy on how the health service in Northern Ireland will cope with increased demand is more urgently needed than ever."