Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Roy Beggs MLA has revealed a crisis in breast cancer services in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust.
Mr. Beggs reported that in September, only 11.9 per cent of urgent breast cancer referrals were seen within 14 days compared to the target of 100 per cent.
In a statement, Mr. Beggs said: “I’ve been aware of a deteriorating situation regarding breast cancer referrals in the Northern Trust area for some months now but I chose not to highlight it in order to avoid unduly raising patient concerns.
“But the current situation now has become so serious, and the figures so bleak, that unless immediate action is taken I really am fearful that patients will come to harm.
“Compared to April this year when 100 per cent of urgent referrals in the Trust were seen within 14 days, the situation in the five months since has collapsed. Initially it fell to 84 per cent in May, slumping to just 59 per cent by July and then collapsing by 40 per cent in just one month to an appalling 19 per cent in August.
“Terrifyingly, now the Northern Health and Social Care Trust have reported that in September only 11.9 per cent of urgent referrals were seen within 14 days. It is my understanding that in September the longest wait endured by a patient with an urgent referral was a shocking 44 days.
“Targets are set for cancer treatment because there is very sound medical evidence that the longer a patient has to wait for treatment, the greater the risk that they may ultimately come to harm. Cancer is an especially cruel and vicious disease that thrives during any avoidable delay in treatment. It is also totally unfair to force patients who think they may have cancer to wait so long for answers.
“I have been told that the cause of the deterioration has been a gap between capacity and patient demand and, even though the Trust has been undertaking some additional activity, because of a shortage of staff and others on annual leave, the situation worsened and a backlog of patients accumulated as a result.
“It is my understanding that, given the seriousness of situation, the Health and Social Care Board has recently met with the Trust in order to discuss urgent steps that need to be taken.
“If there was a local health minister in place they would rightly be hauled to the Stormont chamber to account for what has happened and explain what immediate steps they were taking to put it right. But there is no minister and, on the whole, our local health service is largely leaderless and unaccountable to scrutiny. If these figures occurred in England it would be a scandal, but in Northern Ireland they simply lay bare another example of the deep cracks opening across our health service.
“It is ridiculous that the Secretary of State continues to put her fanciful policy of hoping for the DUP and Sinn Fein will come together to break the political stalemate ahead of looking after the genuine and urgent needs of local patients. We need a government and an accountable health minister in place to drive improvements in our health service. If this is not being provided by a local Executive, then the Secretary of State and our Westminster government have a duty to citizens to step in and appoint one.”