Closing Northern Ireland cancer centres 'can cut waiting times'
Health charities in Northern Ireland have welcomed a proposal to cut the number of breast cancer assessment centres here from five to three.
The Department of Health has launched a 12-week consultation and says the move will concentrate resources, even if some women will have further to travel.
Currently, women who have an issue identified through breast screening or a GP visit will be referred to one of the five centres for further investigation. The waiting time target of 14 days, however, is rarely met.
Gareth Kirk, chief executive of Action Cancer, said the proposal was a positive step.
"We would certainly welcome the consultation. It's about what's best for the client or for women in this case," he said.
Mr Kirk said Action Cancer's research showed women were quite prepared to travel some distance to be seen more quickly.
"Some of the problems are not unique to Northern Ireland in this case. There's obviously a world shortage of radiologists and radiographers," he said.
"Northern Ireland is suffering from that as well so it makes sense to have fewer but more effective centres.
"We would certainly encourage the public to respond to the consultation."
The move was also praised by the Macmillan charity in Northern Ireland. Heather Monteverde, head of services, said: "We know that more and more people will experience cancer - by 2030 the number of people living with cancer in NI is predicted to reach around 100,000.
"As the very first breast cancer nurse specialist in NI, I know only too well the distress that women can feel waiting to be seen at an outpatient clinic to find out whether or not they have cancer. By concentrating resources in fewer sites, women will be seen much quicker."
She added that those who did not have a cancer diagnosis would get the reassurance they needed sooner, and those who did would start treatment sooner.
"We cannot keep doing things the way we've always done or our health and social care system will continue to deteriorate."
Assessment services are currently provided at Altnagelvin, Antrim Area, Craigavon Area, Belfast City and the Ulster hospitals. The new set-up would see assessments offered at Altnagelvin, Antrim and Belfast, with the Ulster Hospital the most likely location in the capital.
A report on breast surgery services here is also due from the Department of Health by the end of the year.
Richard Pengelly, Department of Health Permanent Secretary, said: "We have listened carefully to patient voices and it is very clear that timely access to care is the overriding priority.
"The way breast assessment services are currently delivered is becoming increasingly fragile.
"Staffing challenges are an important factor behind these pressures and demand for care - including urgent referrals for suspected cancer - is increasing.
"Sticking with the current model would mean ongoing and worsening vulnerability, with deteriorating waiting times for assessment. That would simply be unacceptable.
"Consolidating care on three sites means we can provide durable and quality services, for the benefit of patients and staff."
Other proposed measures include a centralised appointment booking system and a regional Breast Assessment Network to shape future service provision.
Proposals to reduce the number of stroke units in hospitals here are also expected to be announced today.
The reconfiguration of acute stroke services is a major part of plans to reform and restructure health service delivery in the region.
Patients who suffer strokes can currently receive emergency treatment at eight hospitals.
It is understood a number of different models will be announced, all of which propose a reduction in that number.