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Northern Ireland health department misses cancer treatment targets

Northern Ireland has seen its worst month on record in terms of the target time scale for patients starting treatment for cancer, a charity has said (Peter Byrne/PA)
Northern Ireland has seen its worst month on record in terms of the target time scale for patients starting treatment for cancer, a charity has said (Peter Byrne/PA)

Northern Ireland has seen its worst month on record in terms of the target time scale for patients starting treatment for cancer, a charity has said.

New department of health figures also revealed that targets around cancer treatment were missed in the last quarter.

Health Minister Robin Swann responded saying his department launched a cancer strategy last year, and has a number of strategies in place to tackle waiting times, but he said without a confirmed budget, it is difficult.

The Northern Ireland Assembly remains unable to function due to a political standoff over the Brexit protocol.

The DUP have vowed not to nominate a Speaker or ministers until the UK government takes action over the protocol.

A new budget cannot be agreed without a new Executive nominated.

The latest waiting list figures from the department of health assess performance from January to March 2022.

There is a 62-day target for first treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspect cancer.

In March, 48% started treatment within 62 days, up from 41% in February and 33% in January.

There is a 31 day target for a first definitive treatment following a decision to treat.

In March, 88% of patients started treatment within 31 days, compared with 88% in February and 82% in January.

There is a 14 day target for patients to be seen following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer.

In March, 43% were seen within 14 days, compared with 54% in February and 55% in January.

Cancer Research UK said January 2022 was the worst month on record for the 62 day target for patients starting treatment for cancer following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.

The 62-day target includes time for tests to diagnose cancer including imaging, endoscopy and pathology tests.

They said the department’s targets that at least 95% of patients with an urgent referral for a suspicion of cancer must start treatment within 62 days has never been met.

The charity’s public affairs manager in Northern Ireland, Margaret Carr, said the latest figures “show once again that, despite the tireless efforts of health service staff, too many people are waiting too long for a test to find out if they have cancer”

“This is deeply concerning as we know that delays to diagnosis and starting treatment may make it more difficult to treat cancer successfully.

“And these delays make an already anxious time waiting to find out if you have cancer even more difficult,” she said.

“Longstanding, chronic staff and equipment shortages and the ongoing impact of the pandemic are at the heart of patient delays, and we need to see urgent action now to address this.

“The 10-year cancer strategy for Northern Ireland published in March is the road map for the transformation and improvement of services.

“But with no Executive to agree a budget to fund and implement the strategy there will be no improvement in these figures and patients will continue to be diagnosed late.

“Without investment in, and implementation of the NI cancer strategy, the impact on patients could be devastating as staff shortages take their toll and services are unable to take advantage of the latest equipment, tests and treatments.”

Mr Swann said the department published its cancer recovery strategy last year, along with costings.

“So currently, while we have a number of initiatives and strategies in place, I can push on with those as Minister of Health, but without a confirmed budget, it makes it difficult for us to tackle the big issues that we want to tackle … the cancer strategy being one of those.

“But when we look at the rebuild processes, in regards to diagnosis for breast screening, and also bowel screening, we’re actually at the position now when we’re doing more of those than we were pre Covid.

“So there’s a real drive across our system to get back on top of these waiting lists and those initiatives as well.

“So it’s how we put all those building blocks in place.

“I can do as much as I can, the system can do as much as it can but without that long term sustained recurrent budget, it makes some of these decisions, and some of those progresses actually more difficult.”

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