Serious breaches in waiting time targets for cancer patients leads to calls for urgent action by executive
ONE in four patients with suspected breast cancer in Northern Ireland were not seen by a consultant within the 14-day target, latest government figures have revealed.
Serious delays for those due to undergo their first treatment following an urgent referral have also emerged, with just over 40 per cent starting treatment within 62 days – when the target is "at least" 95 per cent.
The Department of Health quarterly figures - which relate to the period between July and September last year - have sparked major concerns among charities who are calling for the implementation of a long awaited 10-year cancer strategy to improve outcomes.
The draft strategy was published by the executive in June and completed a public consultation by October.
The latest department data shows that in September only 75.5 per cent, or 1,010 of 1,337, of 'red flag' breast cancer patients referred by their GP to a specialist, were seen on time. This is compared to 81.9 per cent, or 1,099 of the 1,342 patients, in September 2020.
Cancer Focus NI warned of a "consistent failure" to meet targets while Cancer UK said the delays will cause "horrendous worry".
"The executive's draft 10-year cancer strategy has the power to put cancer services on track by ensuring we have the right staff in place to detect, diagnose and treat cancer. The strategy is the key to tackling waiting times and improving cancer survival," Barbara Roulston, Northern Ireland manager for Cancer UK said.
"However, there are still questions about funding to ensure we have the right workforce in place to detect, diagnose and treat cancer effectively. We need the executive to take swift action now to fund the strategy in full, avoid a cancer catastrophe and ensure cancer survival doesn't start going backwards."
Department figures also show that 42.5 per cent of 183 cancer patients deemed 'urgent' in September began their first treatment within 62 days compared with 60.3 per cent of the 368 patients, in the same month the previous year.
The latest statistics confirm an increase in new referrals for suspected breast cancer referrals,with 2,583 made last September compared with 1,827 in August, 1,748 in July and 2,042 in September 2020.
Richard Spratt, chief executive of Cancer Focus NI, said the impact of delayed tests and treatment is devastating.
"These statistics are not just numbers, they represent real people," he said.
"Even pre-Covid, cancer incidence and mortality were increasing, with these trends exacerbated by an ageing population and health inequalities. We fear that waiting times will continue to increase for many local people, especially as we're expecting a large cohort of people with a late diagnosis as a result of the pandemic.
"There is an urgent need for the publication and sustained resourcing of the new Cancer Strategy, but in the present and immediate future, we need to see improvements under the Cancer Recovery Plan.
"In addition, significant capacity and workforce challenges must be addressed now. We've presented these concerns to our political leaders for years via our establishment and facilitation of the All Party Group on Cancer at Stormont. Local people cannot and should not wait anymore."