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Cancer Recovery Plan being finalised as latest cancer treatment waiting times released

Health officials are finalising a cancer recovery plan for Northern Ireland, Health Minister Robin Swann has emphasised.

The Minister was commenting following the publication of the latest NI cancer waiting times statistics.

The latest release from the Department of Health gives details of the waiting times for patients accessing cancer services at hospitals during October, November and December 2020.

Key facts and figures are listed below:

Waiting times for first treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspect cancer (62 day target)

  • In December 2020, 333 patients commenced their first treatment for cancer following an urgent referral for suspect cancer. Of these, 55.3% (184 patients) started treatment within 62 days, compared with 53.2% (206 of the 387 patients) in November, 59.4% (224 of the 377 patients) in October and 49.9% (175 of the 351 patients) in December 2019.

Waiting times for first definitive treatment following a decision to treat (31 day target)

  • During December 2020, 792 patients commenced their first treatment for cancer following a decision to treat being taken. Of these, 93.4% (740) started treatment within 31 days, compared with 93.1% (778 of the 836 patients) in November, 96.6% (795 of the 823 patients) in October and 93.7% (759 of the 810 patients) in December 2019.

Patients first seen following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer (14 day target)

  • During December 2020, 1,499 patients were seen by a breast cancer specialist for a first assessment following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer. Of these, 62.2% (933) were seen within 14 days, compared with 46.8% (709 of the 1,514 patients) in November, 70.5% (947 of the 1,343 patients) in October and 88.5% (903 of the 1,020 patients) in December 2019.

Referrals for suspect breast cancer

  • In December 2020, 1,848 new referrals for suspect breast cancer were received; this compares to 2,117 in November, 2,334 in October and 1,518 in December 2019. Referrals for suspect breast cancer can be for advice, assessment or both.

  • Of those new referrals for suspect breast cancer in December 2020, 1,350 (73.1%) were classified as urgent.

Health Minister Robin Swann said:

“Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, our Health and Social Care Trusts worked tirelessly to try to protect and maintain cancer services as much as was possible. In addition, given the major impact Covid-19 had on the health service operating capacity, the HSC secured significant additional theatre capacity from the three local independent sector hospitals to treat the most urgent and time critical patients, ie those with confirmed or suspected cancer. From April last year to February this year that ensured a further 4,500 patients had their crucially important procedures undertaken.

“Yet there is sadly no doubt Covid has still had an impact on patients living with cancer and their families. Improving cancer waiting times will be a major priority for me as Minister.

“The pandemic has exacerbated already unacceptable waiting times as specialist staff, beds and critical care services were redirected to ensure that there were sufficient intensive care beds for all those who needed this care – Covid and non-Covid patients alike.

“Cancer services were challenged before the pandemic with unacceptable waiting times and significant capacity and workforce challenges across a range of areas.

“Officials are currently finalising a Cancer Recovery Plan to address the immediate issues in cancer services with the aim of getting us to a place where services are stronger than before; and to ensure that the delivery of cancer services is resilient to potential future surges of Covid-19 and to the projected increase in cases of cancer. The actions in the recovery plan will also be fully aligned with priorities in the draft Northern Ireland Cancer Strategy.

“I have already introduced a regional process to ensure that cancer surgery will be delivered on the basis of clinical need , making best use of all available theatre capacity across the province.

“As part of the wider recovery plan for Northern Ireland, we are developing green pathways (Covid-free areas or buildings) for non-Covid-19 care.

“Plans are underway to increase capacity to address backlogs in screening, diagnostic and treatment services as a consequence of the impact of Covid-19. In addition to supporting additional in house capacity within the HSC, we are planning to provide additional diagnostic and surgical capacity through the independent sector and other UK and RoI providers.

“The costs of delivering the recovery plan, together with the need to reduce waiting times for diagnosis and treatment, are substantial. I have said before but it is worth repeating that significant recurrent investment is required to support the service to address waiting times and to prepare for the new pressures that we know are coming in terms of growth in demand and the particular care and support needs of those patients who are likely to be diagnosed later as a consequence of the impact of Covid-19 on cancer referrals and care pathways.”