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Urgent cancer operations cancelled 17 times in just two months

Urgent cancer operations were cancelled 17 times in December and January in the Belfast Trust (posed picture)
Seanín Graham

URGENT cancer operations were cancelled 17 times in just two months at the Belfast Trust due to winter pressures and non-medical reasons, the Irish News has learned.

Patients affected included a young mother suffering from a rare tumour, a breast cancer patient and a woman in sixties with a gynaecological tumour whose operation was cancelled just an hour before she due to go to theatre.

The development has raised major concerns as it is extremely rare that planned cancer procedures are ever postponed.

The figures are also at odds with those provided to the Irish News last month by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) - the body responsible for managing the five health trusts - which claimed only four cancer surgeries had been put back across the north's hospitals in January. A Board spokesman also stated that Belfast had not been affected.

However, health officials at the Belfast trust last night confirmed the cancellations took place in December and January and apologised to cancer patients affected for the "distress" caused.

It took almost a month for the trust to confirm the figures following repeated requests from the Irish News.

When asked about the disparity between the Board and trust responses, a HSCB spokeswoman said it had obtained information from the trusts following a request from this newspaper.

"Any enquiries in relation to any subsequent changes to the figures would need to be directed to the trusts," she said.

Despite the Board being responsible for monitoring the monthly performance of trusts, the spokeswoman added that the organisation "does not routinely hold information on the number of cancelled cancer operations".

Dr George O’Neill, a Belfast GP who fought to get a mother-of-three's surgery rescheduled after her operation was axed at 24 hours' notice before Christmas due to anaesthetist shortages said the crisis pointed to an "entire system not delivering".

He also questioned the openness of the NHS and "how information is collated".

"This is a system failing those who work in it and those who use it. I appreciate there are problems that arise and some procedures are put back but priority should be given to those people with serious illnesses," he said.

"I would also question the quality of information and who is collating it, as even in our surgery we are getting figures from trusts that are at variance with the board."

A Belfast trust spokeswoman said: "Surgical/theatre lists fluctuate from day to day. This can happen for a number of reasons for example due to unforeseen complications theatre slots can run over resulting in a postponement at short notice or emergency procedures taking precedence.

"Regretfully, in December 2015 and January 2016 a total of 17 cancer/suspected cancer operations were postponed for non-clinical reasons.

"Belfast Trust cannot discuss an individual's care but every effort is made to ensure that when a patient's surgery is postponed, the surgery or treatment is recheduled as soon as possible.

"Procedures can also be postponed because a patient may not be fit for surgery."

Last week it emerged that almost 650 planned or 'elective' surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements, had been cancelled across the north’s hospitals in January following a major spike in A&E attendances.

Meanwhile, waiting lists are now at their worst in 15 years with 400,000 people - one in five of the population - facing lengthy delays for hospital assessments and treatment.

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