Scotland’s new health secretary has refused to commit to a meeting with members of an NHS Tayside cancer care support group to discuss the region’s struggling services in the wake of a chemotherapy dosing scandal.
Humza Yousaf is the second consecutive SNP health secretary, after his predecessor Jeane Freeman, who has failed to meet with patients following revelations in 2019 about nearly 200 women given lower than standard doses of the treatment.
We reported in March how health bosses were forced to implement a “remobilisation plan” and ask other boards to help prop up its faltering cancer service.
It came after chief executive Grant Archibald told Holyrood’s public audit committee he was unable to guarantee the future of services in the region following the departure of several staff members from the oncology team in the wake of the scandal.
NHS Tayside is currently delivering the national 31-day target for breast cancer treatment for patients who have an urgent suspicion of cancer and is at 94.4% against a target of 95% for the 62-day target.
However, the support group has sought a meeting with Mr Yousaf to discuss ongoing issues with services, including patients with possible cancer symptoms being asked to make multiple trips to NHS Tayside’s “one-stop clinic” because of staff shortages.
Perth mum Lee Dennis, who set up the group after being treated in 2017, said waiting times for urgent referrals and the lack of a comprehensive clinic to carry out all necessary investigations in one visit had been repeatedly raised as concerns.
“Patients are being asked to make multiple trips and in some cases have shown up to imaging appointments only to be told that there isn’t the staff to carry it out,” she said.
“This is incredibly stressful when one is concerned about primary cancer symptoms or symptoms for recurrence in a previously diagnosed case.
“We would like the input of the health secretary to ensure the matter is reviewed at the highest level and hope this will improve the provision of cancer care services in NHS Tayside, which have been in serious need of review for a number of years.
“We were dismayed that the previous health secretary declined an audience with patients. However, we have a new opportunity to revitalise enthusiasm and effect positive changes with the aid of the current government and its members.
“We feel it is imperative that the government listens to the voices of patients in Tayside and would welcome the opportunity to meet with the health secretary to discuss our concerns.”
Patients at NHS Tayside’s one-stop clinic are usually referred through a GP with a breast abnormality and are given an examination by a consultant, a mammogram and other diagnostic and biopsy treatments as necessary in a single visit.
The health board said “additional staffing pressure for the month of July” has meant patients being seen over two appointments – a diagnostic mammogram followed by a further appointment, if this is required.
Patients and families affected by the 2019 dosing scandal repeatedly called on Jeane Freeman and Nicola Sturgeon to meet with them as part of their ongoing search for answers over their care but to date not a single meeting has been arranged.
Mr Yousaf, who lives in the Tayside area, did not respond to a request for comment on the issues raised by the support group or whether he would meet with them.
With this unfolding on Humza Yousaf’s doorstep he simply has no excuse for turning a blind eye like his predecessors.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie
After being contacted regarding the support group’s request to meet with the health secretary, a Scottish Government spokeswoman bizarrely claimed it had not received an invitation to meet with the group but understood NHS Tayside is investigating.
She said: “We understand the strain that breast cancer services in NHS Tayside has been under which is why we have worked intensely to secure resource to ensure its continuation.
“Cancer services have been a priority throughout the pandemic and we are supporting services in our new cancer recovery plan, with planned investment of up to £114.5 million over the next two years.”
North East Scottish Conservative MSP Tess White said it was “frankly appalling” women were having to wait to months just to have a chat with a specialist.
“Cancer referrals need to be seen within weeks, especially when symptoms point towards possible recurrence,” she said.
“Two months for a chat is frankly appalling. It’s right these concerns are being brought to Humza Yousaf’s attention.
“He and his predecessor knew months ago there is a backlog for essential care, and NHS Tayside needs additional resources to bring waiting times within acceptable levels.
“Until top-level help arrives, staff in oncology and other life-saving services are working with one hand behind their back.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said it is “high time that the SNP took their fingers out of their ears and listened to the voice of women with cancer in NHS Tayside”.
“The programme has faltered and the SNP are posted missing in action,” she said. “With this unfolding on Humza Yousaf’s doorstep he simply has no excuse for turning a blind eye like his predecessors.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Tayside said referrals into the breast clinic service classed by clinical teams as an urgent suspicion of cancer are being seen on average within two weeks but there are longer average wait times for other types of GP referrals.
“To address this, additional support has been sourced from a neighbouring board and extra clinics have been running, including at weekends, and more than 200 patients were seen in these clinics in May and June,” she said.
“There is also a longer term recovery plan in place with further additional resource already identified to support a reduction in waiting times.
“A new consultant radiologist is taking up post in September with additional locum support to support the service over the next year.
“The recruitment process for a consultant radiographer is also currently under way. These are key roles for the breast cancer service.