Alliance MLA, Stewart Dickson, has stated his outrage and dismay at the failure of previous Health Ministers to provide adequate health care strategies that deliver to UK standards for cancer patients. This was revealed in a research paper presented to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which highlighted that over 87,000 people in Northern Ireland have been diagnosed with cancer in the last 20 years and that by 2020, almost one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in Northern Ireland, the most common types being cancer of the breast, lung, bowel and prostate. Advances in cancer care and treatment mean that more people are now surviving cancer. The main treatments for cancer include surgery, radiotherapy and drug therapies, such as chemotherapy.
Mr Dickson said it is unacceptable that in Northern Ireland there is no available data outlining how much of the healthcare budget has spent on cancer provision, or how many patients are receiving these treatments. It is therefore difficult to determine whether services are being targeted appropriately.
Mr Dickson said: “All jurisdictions in the UK and the Republic of Ireland have, or are in the process of, updating their cancer strategies with the exception of Northern Ireland, which published its strategy almost ten years ago. 45% of cancer patients in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with cancer at the later stages – namely stage three or four. At this stage cancer is far more difficult to treat, which has an impact on patient quality of life and survival rates.
“None of the three Ministerial cancer waiting-time targets have been achieved in several years. Shockingly, one target has never been achieved – 8 years after its initiation. Demand for cancer care is increasing every year and none of the previous Health Ministers have taken any action to improve waiting times or access to treatment.”
“Although cancer care is now more centralised within Health Trusts, there are a number of workforce issues. GPs, the gatekeepers to primary care, are currently under severe workload and staffing pressures, and several local practices have closed. Moreover, there are delays with diagnostic tests. There is also a shortage of radiologists and one quarter of radiology posts are unfilled in Northern Ireland. These issues have led to diagnostic delays for cancer patients.
Mr Dickson concluded: “In addition to the workforce issues faced by the Health Trusts, there are other disparities for patients in terms of access to treatments and travel times, especially for patients from rural areas. The incidence of cancer is also much higher among the most deprived groups in society compared to the least deprived. I am therefore calling for the implementation of a cancer strategy based on reality for those suffering from or surviving cancer and not potential photo opportunities for a succession of Health Ministers.”