Watch Caron Bell live from Southmead Hospital
The number of suspected breast cancer patients referred to a hospital in Bristol for urgent checks has plunged to a “horrifying” low, according to the NHS trust’s own chairwoman.
In March, less than one in six women who showed potential symptoms of the disease to their GPs were seen by a specialist at Southmead Hospital within the two weeks required.
Health chiefs are now asking hospitals as far as Taunton and Gloucester to help with appointments until the diagnosis crisis eases.
The main cause is “significant workforce issues”, combined with a rise in referrals and the continuation of measures to prevent the spread of infection during the pandemic.
These factors have left about 800 people stuck on the two-week symptomatic breast cancer waiting list.
It came to light at two meetings over the past week – the board of North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT), which runs Southmead’s breast care centre, and the governing body of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire (BNSSG) CCG, which commissions the region’s health services – as they discussed monthly figures for waiting targets.
NBT chairwoman Michele Romaine told the board on 27 May: “There is quite a lot to worry about.
“The thing I’m really worrying about is our breast cancer. That’s horrifying.
"I know the really solid work that’s going on to talk to people who are on this pathway and to triage them but it doesn’t take away from the fact if you are one of these patients, this is massively adding to the stress you are carrying around this.
“So I really want us to focus on what we are going to do about it."
Despite not meeting the two-week wait standard, the hospital is are meeting the 62-day wait standard around starting treatment so patients are not being delayed in the rest of their care.
But interim chief operating officer Karen Brown said a “deep dive” was underway to fully understand the situation and turn it around.
While help is being recruited from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Avon and Gloucestershire Cancer Alliance, she said the situation was unlikely to change any time soon.
Meanwhile, CCG governing body members, who met on Tuesday 1 June, agreed to ask hospital trusts outside BNSSG if they could take some of the referrals.
Medical director of clinical effectiveness Peter Brindle said: “NBT performance for two-week-wait breast symptoms is down to 15.2 per cent.
“You don’t need me to tell you that is very bad."
He said delays have been caused by an increase in referrals not helped by a Covid backlog.
But he said the main issue is around staffing, with several vacancies including radiographers, radiologists and a breast cancer consultant.
Dr Brindle said NBT was taking urgent steps to address the situation, with temporary mitigations including training up senior nurses to do other duties, drafting in locums and outsourcing some roles.
But GPs have been told to warn patients they will not necessarily be seen within two weeks.
“In fact, it’s most unlikely they will be seen within two weeks and it may be up to three to four weeks," Dr Brindle said.
“Clearly this is an extremely difficult situation."
Credit: Adam Postans, The Local Democracy Reporting Service