Derry MLAs express alarm at worsening cancer referral and treatment performances

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Derry MLAs Ciara Ferguson and Sinéad McLaughlin have called for new health and cancer strategies to be expedited after worrying new data showed cancer referral and treatment targets were missed.

Data released this week by the Department of Health showed that in the three months to the end of March 2024, 1,111 patients in the Belfast, Northern, Southern and Western Trusts started their first definitive treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspect cancer.

This was 3.3% (35) more than in the previous quarter (1,076), and 19.4% (267) fewer than in the same quarter last year (1,378).

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Worryingly, only 29.8% (331.5) of those patients started treatment within 62 days, compared with 30.0% (323) in the previous quarter and 34.8% (479) in the same quarter last year.

Derry MLAs Snéad McLaughlin and Ciara Ferguson.Derry MLAs Snéad McLaughlin and Ciara Ferguson.
Derry MLAs Snéad McLaughlin and Ciara Ferguson.

Over that period there were 6,861 referrals received by HSC Trusts for suspect breast cancer, of which 70.1% (4,810) were classified as ‘urgent’.

Following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer, 3,605 patients were seen by a breast cancer specialist, but only 34.1% (1,230) of those 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.

SDLP MLA Ms. McLaughlin described the newly released information as ‘deeply concerning’.

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Foyle MLA Ms McLaughlin said: “Missed cancer waiting time targets have unfortunately become the norm in recent years across the North, but this is about much more than statistics. Behind each one of these cases is someone waiting for much needed, often life-saving treatment and I can’t begin to imagine what the impact of facing a wait for this treatment has on patients and their families.

“The figures around breast cancer referrals are particularly alarming and point to the failure to properly resource and support women’s health. I have campaigned on this issue throughout my time in politics, including presenting research to the Department of Health last year which included testimonies from women who were deeply concerned both by access to cancer services as well as a lack of general awareness around breast cancer."

“It is clear that change is needed in respect to women’s health.”

Ms. McLaughlin said that she was pleased that the Department of Health has agreed to produce a Women’s Health Action Plan that can co-ordinate existing work, but warned that this was “no substitute for a fully funded and resourced Women’s Health Strategy”.

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“I am hopeful that the new Health Minister will commit to the development of such a strategy so that we can catch up with every other part of these islands”.

“Ultimately, the only way we are going to clear these waiting lists is through investment in and the transformation of our health service, otherwise these figures will continue to send alarm bells ringing each time they are published,” she added.

Fellow Derry MLA, Sinn Féin representative Ciara Ferguson said latest figures released on cancer waiting times in the north ‘once again reiterate the urgent need to implement the cancer strategy’.

The Foyle MLA said: “Behind each one of these figures and statistics represent a family, a loved one waiting to be diagnosed with cancer.

“Cancer patients are experiencing traumatic and dire consequences as they wait for a diagnosis, and months and years pass.

“The cancer strategy must be implemented without delay to help tackle these waiting lists. Families cannot wait any longer.

“We will work with all parties and the Executive to tackle waiting lists, support patients and families and to ensure the cancer strategy is fit-for-purpose, appropriate and compassionate.”

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