Hospitals in Northern Ireland providing breast assessment services could be cut from five to three under new proposals published by the Department of Health.
According to Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly, without changes to the current set-up, waiting times for breast assessment will worsen as demand increases in the years ahead.
Currently, such services are provided at five hospitals - Altnagelvin, Antrim, Craigavon, Belfast City, and the Ulster.
Under the proposals, which will be the subject of a public consultation, the services would be consolidated at three sites – Altnagelvin, Antrim, and a greater Belfast location.
That greater Belfast location is likely to be the Ulster Hospital.
Breast assessment services include referrals for symptoms which may be suggestive of cancer and referrals from breast screening mammography tests that indicate the need for a follow-up.
A rapid review of breast surgery is also being initiated and will report by the end of the year.
There are no plans to change the current breast screening arrangements.
Mr Pengelly said: “We have listened carefully to patient voices and it is very clear that timely access to care is the overriding priority.
“The way breast assessment services are currently delivered is becoming increasingly fragile.
“Staffing challenges are an important factor behind these pressures and demand for care – including urgent referrals for suspected cancer - is increasing.
“Consolidating care on three sites means we can provide durable and quality services, for the benefit of patients and staff.”
The public consultation on the proposals will run for 12 weeks, until 17 June.
Heather Monteverde, Head of Services for Macmillan in NI said: “We know that more and more people will experience cancer - by 2030, the number of people living with cancer in Northern Ireland is predicted to reach around 100,000.
“As the very first Breast Cancer Nurse Specialist in NI, I know only too well the distress that women can feel waiting to be seen at an out-patient clinic to find out whether or not they have cancer.
“By concentrating resources in fewer sites, women will be seen much quicker.
“Those who don’t have a cancer diagnosis will get the reassurance they need and those who do will start treatment sooner and get the necessary support and care.”