Belfast Telegraph

Delays in treatment for new Northern Ireland cancer patients on the rise


'Ministerial targets state that 95% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer should start their treatment within 62 days' (stock photo)
'Ministerial targets state that 95% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer should start their treatment within 62 days' (stock photo)
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

More patients are waiting longer than they should to start urgent cancer treatment in Northern Ireland.

Just over 55% of those diagnosed (180 out of 325 cases) had their first treatment within 62 days between April and June this year following an urgent referral.

This was a drop of around 15% from the same period last year (70.8%), official figures show.

Ministerial targets state that 95% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer should start their treatment within 62 days.

This target, set in 2009, has never been met by any health trust in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said: "Once again these figures confirm that the situation in our health service is still getting worse.

"We have by far the worst waiting times in the UK and there is no longer any doubt that delays in treatments are seeing local patients come to real physical and emotional harm.

"Every time the cancer figures are released there is a collective sigh of disbelief right across Northern Ireland, but even that now quickly fades, for as a society we have come to expect nothing else. It's an appalling and deeply tragic situation."

The figures emerged yesterday as part of the quarterly release of cancer waiting times in Northern Ireland, published by the Department of Health.

Figures show ministerial targets were also missed on assessments for suspected breast cancer.

Between April and June this year, 809 patients commenced their first treatment for cancer following a decision to treat being taken. Of these, 93.3% (755) started treatment within the target 31 days, compared with to 95.4% (806 of 845 cases) a year earlier.

Some 80% of 1,303 patients were seen by a breast cancer specialist within the target 14 days for a first assessment following an urgent referral. This compares to 94.1% of patients a year earlier.

In June this year, 80% of patients were seen within 14 days - amounting to 1,042 out of 1,303 patients.

This is a drop of 14.1% from the same period last year.

Dervilia Kernaghan, head of care services at Cancer Focus NI, said: "While it is encouraging that some patients are seen quickly, these latest figures clearly show that some ministerial targets are still not being met.

"We know that with our ageing population and the increased incidence of cancer, there is consistent pressure on our health services which is likely to continue.

"We acknowledge how stretched the health service is and we have consistently called for investment in our cancer services."

She backed the Department of Health's new cancer strategy, due for publication next year.

"Cancer Focus NI's vision is for a new comprehensive and well-resourced approach to address these issues faced by cancer patients in a systemic, robust and sustained manner," she said.

Margaret Carr of Cancer Research UK said: "It's now become the norm in Northern Ireland for patients to wait too long for the tests they need."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The latest cancer waiting figures underline once again the need to reshape services.

"The department is committed to taking forward key initiatives including the development of a new cancer strategy for Northern Ireland.

"The responses to our public consultation on reshaping breast assessment services are being carefully studied ahead of decisions on next steps.

"Addressing waiting times across health and social care will require transformation of services and sustained investment."

The number of new cancer patients who had their first treatment within 62 days from April-June 2019

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