Leading article

Editorial: Patients cannot wait any longer

SEPARATE announcements by the Department of Health this week provided an insight into vital work being done on health service reform – but also the colossal task that remains.

On the positive side, a review was published setting out changes to how general surgery will be delivered, with the aim of providing better, safer and more consistent care.

Health minister Robin Swann said the case for re-shaping services is unanswerable, given wide variation in performance, staffing challenges and a need to separate planned and emergency surgery to help tackle long waiting lists.

Part of a wider plan being developed for the future of hospital services, it will see the establishment of centres of excellence to concentrate on planned procedures requiring at least one night's stay.

The Mater in north Belfast has been earmarked as the first of these, with Bishop of Down and Connor Dr Noel Treanor giving his blessing on behalf of its trustees.

The setting of new standards that hospitals will be required to meet is also likely to result in some sites losing emergency services.

While a move towards specialisation may be politically unpalatable, it is in firmly line with recommendations in a succession of reports and is designed to create a new network of more sustainable services.

As if to emphasise the need for change, the review emerged on the same day that shocking figures again showed how long some cancer patients are waiting to be seen.

In March this year, less than half of patients began their first treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer within the target of 62 days – and only a third in the month of January.

For urgent referrals for suspected breast cancer, only 44 per cent were seen by a specialist with the target of 14 days during March.

Waiting for a cancer test or treatment is a hugely anxious time for any patient and a delay can only add to that concern.

The "appalling waiting times" have prompted renewed pleas for an executive to be formed to allow a new cancer strategy to be implemented.

One charity starkly warned that despite the best efforts of healthcare professionals, the "health system is falling apart".

While progress in the area of general surgery is welcome, it is clear both patients and staff simply cannot wait any longer for the transformation required across the health service to take place.

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