Health crisis deepens with just half cancer patients starting treatment within two months in Northern Ireland
Only half of cancer patients are expected to begin treatment within two months of being referred to hospital this year.
Alarming figures presented at a Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) meeting have laid bare the impact of the ongoing health crisis on some of the most seriously ill patients in Northern Ireland.
According to a government target, at least 95% of patients urgently referred with a suspected cancer should begin their first definitive treatment within 62 days in 2019/20.
However, this was the case for only 48% of patients urgently referred for a suspected cancer in October this year.
And projected performance for the full 2019/20 financial year makes for further grim reading, with only 50% of cancer patients across Northern Ireland expected to start their treatment within two months over the 12-month period.
This is down from 65% in 2018/19, highlighting a downward turn in the ability to meet targets and provide safe care to patients.
The figures have been revealed just weeks after it emerged that one in five cancer patients in Northern Ireland receive their diagnosis in an emergency department.
And it comes as talks aimed at restoring the Assembly were halted last week after the DUP said it would not be pressured into a deal before it was happy with the conditions.
However, health bosses have warned that, in relation to meeting the 62-day target, "all trusts expect performance to deteriorate compared to last year".
According to figures provided to the HSCB, the Belfast Trust is expecting to begin treatment within 62 days in 38% of cases this year - down from 53% in 2018/19.
The South Eastern Trust has predicted it will only begin treating 29% of patients inside 62 days, compared to 52% last year.
Meanwhile, the Southern Trust has said it will begin treatment within 62 days in 56% of cases, compared to 74% last year.
In the Northern Trust, 58% of patients are expected to begin treatment inside 62 days, compared to 67% in the last financial year.
The Western Trust is predicted to perform the best out of the trusts, with three quarters of patients expected to begin treatment within two months.
However, it will also see a decline in performance compared to the last year, which is down from 78%.
Roisin Foster, chief executive of Cancer Focus in Northern Ireland, said it was unacceptable.
She said: "It is very worrying that after all this time waiting times in many trusts seem to be deteriorating rather than improving.
"One in five cancers are diagnosed in A&E departments. That is something that should never happen and is not good enough.
"We need to take action now, otherwise, as our population ages, these problems will only get worse.
"Our nurses and doctors are struggling under enormous pressures as workforce shortages contribute towards delays.
"We urgently need Stormont to get back to work, more funding to be allocated to the health service and better workforce planning.
"Preparation work is under way for a new Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland which I hope will be ready for implementation as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, Heather Monteverde, head of services for Macmillan in Northern Ireland, said: "Uncertainty about the future takes an enormous emotional toll on people living with cancer.
"Long waits to start cancer treatment can make an already difficult time even more distressing while also raising the possibility of someone's health deteriorating further.
"We know that healthcare professionals within all of our trusts continue to work tirelessly to support patients and to progress change within cancer services, but our healthcare system is not coping.
"We need our decision-makers to prioritise investment in the right places so that we have a health service that's fit for purpose, and enough healthcare professionals to ensure that people living with cancer can access the treatment they need, when they need it."
The health service in Northern Ireland is currently facing its biggest ever crisis.
Thousands of staff are embroiled in a row with officials over pay and conditions, and last week staged a mass strike causing widespread disruption across Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of patients are suffering and coming to harm as a result of Northern Ireland's spiralling waiting lists.
An HSCB spokeswoman said: "The overall cancer waiting times statistics clearly show that cancer services remain under pressure.
"Sustained investment alongside a fundamental transformation in the way services are delivered is required.
"Our goal is to ensure we provide high quality, safe, sustainable, accessible and timely care into the future.
"We have also confirmed that we will be commissioning a new Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland to identity new ways of working to secure further advances in care."