Southern Trust waiting lists for breast cancer screening “shocking”

October 17, 2016

Urgent breast cancer screening in the Southern Trust area is the worst in any area, a recent report by the Department of Health has revealed.

It showed that 93 per cent of patients waited more than the target of 14 days for a first consultation after an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer.

The issue was discussed during a recent Assembly debate where Health Minister Michelle O’Neill expressed her regret and said the Southern Trust was “experiencing challenges” in meeting the target.

The Minister pointed out a marked improvement revealed in September’s figures when almost 80 per cent (77.6%) of urgent referrals were seen within the 14-day target time and said everything was being done to ensure patients are seen “as soon as possible”.

“The provisional figures for September show a marked improvement in performance in the Southern Trust, with 77·6% of urgent referrals seen within the 14-day target,” the Minister said.

“That is as a result of trusts working together to provide additional clinics.  In addition, the trust has extended its working hours, and that has facilitated the operation of a fourth breast clinic.

“Increasing pressures on cancer services, due to an ageing population and increased referrals, inevitably create a pressure on our health services.  That is why we need to reform the health and social care system. Longer term, we need to ensure that we have a sustainable breast service in place to ensure that patients are seen within the timescale set.”

Responding to concerns from fellow Assembly members, Minister O’Neill added: “I think that what we have seen over the last number of months, particularly in the Southern Trust area, has been shocking.

“I think that it is unacceptable that any woman has to wait any longer than is absolutely necessary. The targets are challenging, and they are challenging for a reason. That is to make sure that we deliver the very best outcomes that we possibly can for any woman who finds herself referred for breast cancer assessment.”

A spokesperson for the Southern Trust apologised for any anxiety the delays may have caused and said the trust had worked hard to improve its Breast Cancer service “following a brief dip in performance earlier this year.” He went on to confirm that currently 95% of women are being seen within 14 days.

“The loss of specialist staff meant we were unable to see patients as quickly as we would like, but in partnership with colleagues from other Trusts, performance has improved significantly,” explained the spokesperson.

“Like many units locally and nationally, the Southern Trust Breast Cancer unit has encountered ongoing difficulty with the recruitment and retention of senior medical staff required to meet the demand for breast cancer service.

“The latest published Cancer Waiting Times statistics confirm that in the last quarter (Apr-June ), The Southern Trust achieved the Ministerial target in all 3 months with over 98% of patients diagnosed with cancer receiving their first definitive treatment (for all cancers) within 31 days of a decision to treat.

“The Ministerial target for patients treated within 62 days was not achieved by any Trust in Northern Ireland but The Southern Trust was among the best performing overall.”