08 Aug 2022

Cancer waiting times illustrate 'growing health care crisis', says Derry MLA

Mark H Durkan
A Derry MLA believes the latest statistics on cancer waiting times illustrate a growing crisis in health care. The statistics published by the Department of Health take in waiting times from January to March of this year across Northern Ireland. The Ministerial Target on waiting times for treatment following an urgent referral for suspect cancer states that, ‘during 2018/19, 95% of patients urgently referred with a suspect cancer should begin their treatment within 62 days’. Following a decision to treat at least 98% of patients diagnosed with cancer should receive their first definitive treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. And all urgent breast cancer referrals should be seen within 14 days. All HSC Trusts failed to meet the 62 day component of the Ministerial target during all three months of the quarter. Out of the five Trusts, the Western Trust sat in the middle in terms of its 62-day performance, neither the best or worst. However, there was a notable drop in performance from March 2018 when 84.7% of patients commenced treatment with 62 days in comparison to 66.7% in March this year. The Western Trust was the best-performer in terms of meeting 31-day-target, and indeed it was the only Trust to score 100% in all three months of 2019. It did not meet the 14-day target in two out of three months, scoring 99.6% in January 94.4% in March. It was not along in that regard as four out of the five Trusts missed the target, Belfast Trust being the only one to meet it. Leadership SDLP Health Spokesperson Mark H Durkan has described as "damning" the statistics. He said the failure across NI to meet a single cancer waiting time target is a “disgrace” that requires urgent political attention. The Foyle MLA has called on parties to double their efforts to seek a resolution in the current talks process that restores an inclusive, power sharing executive and strategic political leadership at the Department of Health. He added: “Our Health Service is in dire need of strategic leadership that advances the transformation agenda. Figures published show that once again we have missed all three ministerial targets for cancer waiting times. "These figures represent real people enduring the agony of waiting for assessment and treatment for life threatening and life limiting conditions. It isn’t good enough and we all have to face up to it. “This is, once again, a symptom of the failure to address the crisis in our health service. And it underlines the seriousness of the current talks process. Because this is the real cost of failure – the lives and quality of life of hundreds of people in all of our communities. “All parties must redouble their efforts to secure a resolution that restores inclusive, power sharing government. We have a serious, and growing, crisis in health to deal with. There’s no room to pass the buck.” Staffing gaps The Department of Health believes that NI’s cancer waiting times are unacceptable. They are mainly attributable to staffing gaps in cancer services. The Department’s approach to transforming cancer care is firstly to stabilise services on fewer sites staffed by larger teams of professional staff. Larger teams will make it easier to attract and retain staff - and to cope when some are unavailable. It has therefore embarked on the public consultation on reshaping breast assessment care. This work will be complemented by the forthcoming review of breast treatment services and the development of a new long-term cancer strategy for Northern Ireland. A spokesperson said: "Yet again, the 14 day target for urgent referrals for suspected breast cancer has been missed. Breast assessment services clearly demonstrate the need to be consolidated on fewer sites to ensure more reliable care, especially given the projected increase in breast cancer in the years ahead. "A number of different trusts have fallen well short of the 14 day target in recent years, with staffing gaps the recurring cause. That’s not the fault of the individual units or their hardworking staff. "It’s because staffing numbers are currently spread too thinly across the province. Smaller units are particularly vulnerable to staffing crises, for instance when a colleague falls ill or takes a job elsewhere." In addition, a Western Health and Social Care Trust spokesperson explained that it is currently experiencing challenges in a number of areas which are having an impact on maintaining the 62 day performance target. Senior managers and clinicians are working collaboratively across the service areas to address these issues and service improvement plans are in place” The spokesperson continued: “ The Western Trust has a longstanding good performance against cancer waiting time targets and we are committed to ensuring our cancer patients receive high quality, treatment and care at the North West Cancer Centre.”  

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