March 28 2019
Only 60% of cancer patients in Northern Ireland started their first treatment within the target time period, new figures have revealed.
Statistics from the Department of Health (DoH) show in December 2018, 319 patients began their first treatment following an urgent referral by their GP.
Of these, only 193 patients (60.5%) started treatment within the target 62 day period, compared with 66.8% the year before.
There have been improvements for breast cancer patients awaiting a first assessment from a specialist, however.
Of the 1,122 patients who received an assessment, 99.8% were seen withing the target time of 14 days – up from 80.8% in December 2017.
A DoH spokesperson said that, while the improvements for breast cancer waiting times are welcome, cancer services “remain under pressure”.
“When £30 million was allocated to address waiting times in 2018/19, it was made clear patients with the highest clinical need, including those with suspected or confirmed cancer, would be a priority,” they said.
“Whilst this non-recurrent investment has made a real difference, 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.”
Margaret Carr of Cancer Research UK said the figures are “very disappointing” and improving diagnostic services should be a key focus for the DoH moving forward.
“These statistics aim to ensure patients are seen in good time and they count the time between when someone is first referred by their GP and when they begin treatment. They include the time for all diagnostic tests such as imaging and endoscopy,” she added.
“The continued poor performance indicates major issues with the services that provide tests for patients. And with an ageing population, this problem is only going to escalate and put more pressure on already stretched resources.
“Diagnostic services should be a key focus in the new cancer strategy recently announced by the Department of Health.”
Earlier this month, the DoH announced it will develop a new cancer strategy for Northern Ireland, aimed at “identifying new ways of securing further advances across cancer care”.
It said that it will work with patients, staff and cancer charities to develop the strategy, adding that it sees merit in the model used by NHS England to support the development of its cancer strategy.
“This involved the establishment of an independent cancer taskforce which worked closely with professional cancer services staff, patients, cancer charities, commissioners, care providers and other key stakeholder groups,” a spokesperson said.
“Discussions are planned with local cancer charity representatives on the commissioning of the strategy and the potential development of a taskforce model.”
The SDLP’s health spokesperson, Mark H Durkan, said: “A cancer diagnosis is an extremely difficult and worrying time for patients and their families. We have a duty to ensure this period in a person’s life is a stress-free as possible and that they receive first class treatment throughout this process.
“We need to deliver a cancer strategy for the North that allows us to be as ambitious as possible when it comes to reducing waiting times for cancer patients.
“That demands a minister providing strong direction. We cannot continue to fail people who receive a cancer diagnosis and need urgent help.”
Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Roy Beggs pointed out that any new cancer strategy would have to be signed off by a Stormont minister, so delays in its roll-out are “inevitable”.
“The Secretary of State needs to take action. No longer can she get away with wilfully holding a senior position in the Government, but still refusing to govern,” he said.
“If local ministers cannot be appointed she should move immediately to introduce Direct Rule. Only then could key decisions be taken that actually have a chance of helping people.”
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