Cancer and dementia patients suffer in NHS doctors' pensions row
Waiting times for cancer and dementia services are growing as the row over doctors' pensions threatens patient safety.
The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) has warned that patients with cancer and dementia are among those enduring delays for appointments and treatments as a result of changes to doctors' pensions.
A shortage of nurses is also playing a role in patients experiencing potentially life-threatening waits for operations and treatments, according to health bosses.
Senior doctors have been dramatically scaling back the hours they work after reforms to their pensions mean they are being severely financially penalised for running extra clinics to help the health service cope with demand.
As a consequence, waiting times for outpatient, diagnostics and inpatient appointments are spiralling further out of control.
According to the most recent HSCB performance report, cancer and dementia services are suffering as a result.
The document said: "Cancer services remain under significant pressure with performance during 2018/19 falling short on all three Ministerial targets.
"Increased demand for services coupled with recruitment challenges and more recently pension changes continue to impact negatively on performance."
The report reveals that health bosses expect that the number of cancer patients who begin their treatment within 31 days this financial year will drop to 89% from 94% in 2018/19.
Health trusts have also predicted that the percentage of cancer patients who begin their treatment within 62 days will drop this financial year - from 63% in 2018/19 to 51%.
It also highlights the challenges facing dementia services, laying the blame in one trust on the pension crisis.
"Regionally at the end of August 2019, 513 patients were waiting longer than nine weeks for dementia services. This is a significant increase on the previous month - 331," said the report.
It outlines the various measures that are being put in place to address the situation, but said a number of issues, including the pension row, is impeding efforts.
"The South Eastern Trust, which accounts for half of the patients waiting longer than nine weeks regionally, has reported increasing demand as the main reason for the increased waiting times," it said.
"The trust has previously undertaken additional activity to meet increased demand, however, this has been made more challenging due to a reduction in consultants willing to do additional work due to the ongoing pensions issue."
Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Council in Northern Ireland, said doctors are concerned the situation is impacting on patient care.
He said: "There is definitely poorer access to care as a result of the pension row and one of our big concerns is that cancer care, particularly investigations and scans, are being adversely affected. Radiologists are being particularly hit hard by the issue because they can do lots of extra work at nights and at weekends so as many people as possible are seen as quickly as possible.
"I have spoken to one senior consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital who said they are struggling to look after cancer targets because of the pension issue."
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to address the situation, which is adding more misery on to patients as the health service approaches its busiest time of year.
As the number of people requiring hospital treatment due to falls and a rise in infections caused by the cold weather, health trusts traditionally cut down the number of planned surgeries and clinics to free up beds for emergency admissions.
It is expected that the pension crisis will exacerbate the situation even further, coming at the same time as health bosses face the prospect of thousands of nurses striking over pay and conditions.
The HSCB report repeatedly cites a shortage of nurses, in specialist roles and theatres, as playing a part in the lengthy waiting times for cancer treatments.
In relation to the difficulties facing the Northern Trust in relation to its breast cancer services, the report said it has used the nurse bank system to fill shifts.
It also said that a lack of theatre nursing support is contributing to delays in patients being treated for cancer.
"Theatre access remains problematic impacted by lack of physical capacity, lack of access to funded sessions and lack of nursing," it added.
The comments by the HSCB have come to light days after the Department of Health said it cannot afford to meet the demands of health unions who are currently threatening industrial action.
The amount required to close the gap and bring the pay of nurses in Northern Ireland into line with England, Scotland and Wales is £103m.