Major breach of breast cancer referral targets

A breast cancer consultant analyses a mammogram
SeanĂ­n Graham

ALMOST three-quarters of suspected breast cancer patients were not seen within the two-week target at Northern Ireland’s biggest health trust this summer, The Irish News has learned.

Many women deemed 'red-flag' referrals after being assessed by their GP faced delays to see a consultant in the Belfast health trust - with one patient waiting 33 days in June.

Earlier this year it emerged just 16 per cent of women had been referred within the fortnight target in Belfast - one of the worst performances in the entire NHS - with trust management pledging to introduce measures to tackle the crisis.

Patients who warrant urgent diagnostic testing, such as a mammogram and needle biopsy, were seen within the target across three other health trusts with the exception of the South Eastern Trust, where the rate was 87 per cent.

While there was a slight improvement in the Belfast trust in June, this dropped again in July when less than fifth were seen by a specialist within the proper timescale.

A GP whose patients have been affected said delays around a cancer diagnosis are one of the worst parts of the "treatment pathway".

"When you are facing a wait for a diagnosis you have no control and the uncertainty is awful," said Dr Michael McKenna, who is based in west Belfast.

"In the case of the person who waited 33 days that was 19 days too long - it's not good.

"When there is a suspected cancer and guidelines are set down to see that patient, then they should be seen in that time."

Dr McKenna said the north's waiting times across many specialties are "among the worst in Europe" and that "management of the system needed to looked at".

A spokesman for the Belfast trust attributed its poor performance to a spike in the patients over the summer period, with 318 referrals in June alone compared to an average of 247 a month.

He added that they were redirecting patients to other health trusts, with a big improvement this month (when 59 per cent of patients were seen within the fortnight). This arrangement will continue until the end of September.


The Health and Social Care Board, the body that oversees the work of the trusts, is also providing funding to appoint extra staff to the Belfast organisation.

Michael Bloomfield, director of performance at the Board, said discussions are underway to also agree funding for an additional “one-stop clinic”.

“The Board has also required the Trust to ensure that no patient waits longer than 28 days during July and that this maximum waiting time reduces considerably from August onwards.”


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