Foyle MLA Mark H. Durkan has called for the urgent upgrade of a cancer strategy for the North after a damning research report blasted missed waiting time targets, diagnostic delays and continued health inequalities.
Dr. Lesley-Ann Black and Keara McKay’s new research paper on cancer for the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Research and Information Service is highly critical of consecutive Northern Ireland Executives for failing to live up to decade old promises around the North’s number one killer.
The report points out how all the other jurisdictions in Ireland and Britain have, or are in the process of, updating their cancer strategies, while the North’s is fossilised in 2008, when it was originally published.
Dr. Black and Ms. McKay also blast recent failures to meet departmental cancer targets, stating: “None of the three Ministerial cancer waiting time targets have been achieved in several years.
“One target has never been achieved - eight years after its inception.”
The researchers also warn that a shortage of radiologists has led to diagnostic delays and that health inequalities continue to plaque Irish society with “the overall incidence of cancer much higher among the most deprived than the least deprived groups in society”.
Mr. Durkan, the SDLP’s health spokesman, said: “This report on cancer services here is scathing. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Northern Ireland and while we should celebrate that more people are now surviving cancer, the fact that survival rates here are lower than the European average is very alarming.
“I have called on successive Health Ministers to bring forward a Cancer Strategy – and this report underlines the urgent need to do so. It is clear that the outdated existing strategy is not working. This is demonstrated clearly in the fact that none of its ministerial targets on waiting times have been met in several years. Furthermore, some of the pressures identified in the report, such as difficulties facing GPs and a shortage of Radiologists, suggest that without urgent action this situation is likely to worsen.
“We owe it to the people of Derry and the North to ensure that, should they fall ill, that they get the best treatment possible.
“I will be raising my concerns about the content of this report, as well as the need for equal access to cancer drugs for people here, with the Department of Health. However, what is abundantly clear is the need for us to get a government up and running to focus on tackling vital issues like this.”
In their report, Dr. Black and Ms. McKay conclude: “Whilst significant advances have been made in cancer care and treatment, there remain variations in provision and many gaps still exist.
“Policy documents lack evaluation and follow-up action. Furthermore, Northern Ireland is the only jurisdiction in the UK and Republic of Ireland not to have updated its cancer strategy.
“Evidence also suggests more could be done in terms of earlier diagnosis and more timely treatment.
“Some of the key challenges linked to this include: workforce and resource issues in primary and secondary care, educating people - where possible, about the signs and symptoms of cancer, and poor Ministerial waiting time target performance.”
Elswhere, the report acknowledges the progress in regional cancer treatment achieved through the development of the new radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin, but with the caveat: “Despite the opening of the new cancer centre in Londonderry, some patients still face substantial journeys (in addition to waiting time delays) to access treatment.”