Less than 50 per cent of urgent breast cancer referrals in the Northern Trust have been seen by a specialist within the government's 14-day target from April to June of this year.
A 2020/21 Ministerial target, set by the Department of Health (DoH), had aimed to have all urgent breast cancer referrals seen by a specialist within 14 days.
On average, DoH data revealed that from April to June, only 42 per cent of patients were seen by a specialist within the 14-day target in the local Trust area, which covers the majority of County Derry.
Only 26 per cent of patients were seen within 14 days in April, while the number rose to 50 per cent in May and 51 per cent in June.
The figures fall well below the 84 per cent average across all Northern Ireland's health trusts, even as the health service experienced huge demand during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Northern Trust has said staff shortages were to blame for the shortfall, with patients shielding also impacting on performance figures.
“The biggest challenge to our service was to adhere to the extant social distancing requirements in the outpatient setting to ensure patients safety,” they said in a statement provided to the County Derry Post.
“Based on the environmental risk assessment this required that face to face clinic slots were reduced thus reducing the number of patients being seen at each clinic.
“Other factors that influenced our capacity negatively included medical staff and radiology staff vacancies, key staff who deliver clinics being on maternity leave or shielding due to Covid-19.
“Patients who were shielding and felt unable to attend for appointments show as a breach of the waiting time impacting on overall performance figures.
“The service at this time was compromised in terms of available specialist surgeons and support was sought from regional colleagues, but this was unable to be facilitated.
“Once diagnosed, patients were all treated within the 31 day target.”
CONCERNING: East Derry MLA Claire Sugden.
East Derry MLA, Claire Sugden, said that while she sympathised with the additional pressures caused by Covid-19, patients with other serious conditions could not be neglected in diagnosis or treatment.
“Waiting times were poor before, so these figures are doubly concerning,” said the independent MLA.
“Patients are already worried and scared – both because of their illness and because of Covid – so they shouldn’t be subject to more uncertainty regarding their health.
“There may exist an element of some patients – and staff – still shielding, through fear of Covid. We need to give them confidence that they can still receive treatment safely.
“Any staffing shortages and reduced capacity within our Trusts also need addressed.
“I will be questioning our Executive ministers on this issue in the coming days and weeks. We must ensure those who urgently need treatment are receiving it.”
While the Trust have taken steps to address the staffing issues by recruiting an additional breast surgeon from the beginning of September, their clinic capacity will remain reduced.
“The number of patients that can be facilitated in clinics remains reduced and will be for the foreseeable future,” the Trust spokesperson said.
“Red flag breast referral demand continues to increase. Managers and consultants are working to try and maintain as much activity as possible and we are keeping the position under constant review.
“The Trust, as requested by the Department of Health, has provided a Phase 3 plan for re-set of elective activity setting out what can be provided from the 5 October 2020.”
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