Covid-19 crisis `will be replaced by cancer crisis if substantial staff shortages not addressed'
THE Covid-19 crisis `will be replaced by a cancer crisis' if substantial staff shortages are not addressed urgently, the Department of Health has been warned.
The alarm was sounded after the latest statistics revealed almost 360,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first consultant-led appointment - an increase of almost 9,500 on the previous quarter.
More than half of patients have been waiting for more than a year for a first appointment.
The department's figures reveal that at the end of September, more than 116,000 patients were waiting to be admitted to hospitals - a rise of 2.9 per cent on the previous quarter and 16.5 per cent higher than the same stage last year.
The charity Versus Arthritis said the figures confirm the north's position as "the UK's pain capital".
Northern Ireland director Sara Graham said they "are not just numbers - thousands have been left in agony and disabled because their life-changing joint replacement surgery has been postponed, unable to work or lead an independent life".
And Cancer Research UK highlighted worrying delays in diagnostic tests, saying around 68,000 people are waiting for one of the eight tests most relevant to the disease.
The charity said 49 per cent of these patients had waited more than nine weeks for a diagnostic test after referral and 28 per cent longer than 26 weeks.
The 2020/21 ministerial target for diagnostic waiting times states that by March 31 2021, less than 25 per cent of patients should be waiting longer than nine weeks for a diagnostic test, with no patient waiting longer than 26 weeks.
Across the eight `most relevant' cancer diagnostic tests, these targets were not achieved by any of Northern Ireland's health trusts.
Barbara Roulston of Cancer Research UK said the number of people waiting "too long" for a test to determine whether they have cancer is "deeply worrying".
"We're concerned the situation could be made worse by the impact of winter pressures," she said.
"Substantial staff shortages, which existed before the pandemic, are at the heart of these delays. They need to be addressed urgently or the Covid-19 crisis will be replaced by a cancer crisis."
She called for investment in the executive's draft 10-year cancer strategy, which Cancer Research UK said "has the power to put cancer services on track", with workforce investment, better equipment and "improved ways of working".
"But it needs to be funded," Ms Roulston said.
"The recent Comprehensive Spending Review has provided some clarity around budgets for the next three years and gives the Northern Ireland Executive the opportunity to secure the funding needed to meet these challenges, reduce diagnostic waiting times and save more lives."