Northern Ireland cancer care service on brink of collapse Macmillan Cancer Support warns

A leading charity is warning that the cancer care system in Northern Ireland is on the brink of collapse.

Macmillan Cancer Support has reacted with alarm after figures showed a drop of 50% in the number of suspected breast cancer cases being seen within the two week target.

Other key targets have also been missed – fewer than a third of all cancer patients begin treatment within the recommended period.

Department of Health figures released on Tuesday indicate that, in the quarter ending in March, some 1,111 patients in the Belfast, Northern, Southern and Western Trusts started their first definitive treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.

Some 29.8% of those patients started treatment within 62 days, compared with 30.0% in the previous quarter and 34.8% in the same quarter last year.

In the same period, 34.1% of patients were seen within 14 days of their urgent referral for breast cancer, compared with 35.5% in the previous quarter and 84.2% in the same quarter last year.

“When we're so far off, how do we get there is a really massive question,” Sarah Christie from Macmillan Cancer Support said.

“It's so large now, I don't think this is on the health minister alone. This is an Executive issue.

“We know there's huge issues across our public services, our budget is stretched significantly.

“We need the Executive to work together to address things that are impacting people's lives and ultimately could cost lives.”

Richard Spratt, chief executive of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, called for the region’s politicians and governing bodies to commit to addressing cancer.

“When we learn that seven in 10 people are still waiting longer than two months to start treatments after urgent referral for suspect cancer, those are not just statistics, they are your neighbours, your friends, your family, or even yourselves. We all need these waiting times to be better,” he said.

“If we do not invest in health – from cancer prevention to the waiting times to getting the treatments right the first time – we will only create more problems for ourselves as health conditions worsen, causing even higher costs.

“As part of this, we need transformation and brave decision-making to prioritise and reorient services, to get the waiting times back on target, and to sustainably deliver care even in this challenging budgetary environment.

“This must include more intention around cancer prevention and early detection, which will lead to better outcomes, less invasive procedures, and fewer costs.

“We are encouraged that Health Minister (Michael) Nesbitt has included cancer as one of his priorities and has set as his mission to achieve better health outcomes.

“We cannot put a price on people’s health. We should be able to trust that our health service is there for us when we need it to be.

“When it comes to health, there should not be a conversation on affordability. What we can do, however, is make sure that the resources are being used as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

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