Waiting times for cancer treatment in Northern Ireland are the worst on record, new figures published by the Department of Health show.
The waiting time statistics, published on Wednesday, show that only 61.8% of patients began cancer treatment within two months of an “urgent” referral by a GP.
That is the lowest percentage found in any of the Department of Health’s cancer waiting time statistics, dating back to April 2010.
The target is for 95% of cancer patients to begin treatment within two months of an urgent referral – a target which has never been achieved in Northern Ireland since it was first set.
The occasion when the target came closest to being met came in July 2010, when 91.5% of patients were treated within two months.
Performance against that target, described by the charity Cancer Research UK as the key measure since it includes the initial diagnosis, has been steadily deteriorating ever since.
Cancer Research UK said the situation is “extremely disappointing”.
Margaret Carr, the charity’s public affairs manager for Northern Ireland, said the two-month target is regarded as the most telling.
“It is extremely disappointing. Month after month, quarter after quarter, we are running out of ways to say we are extremely disappointed.
“We concentrate on the 62-day target because that’s the time between when your GP refers you for an urgent suspicion of cancer to when you begin your treatment – it includes all the diagnostic testing.
“And the performance against that target is the poorest – we think it’s because the diagnostic bit isn’t there and we think that it’s not there because of staffing.”
She continued: “Staff in the diagnostic services are working harder than ever but there’s just not enough of them to tackle the backlog. Having the right levels of highly trained diagnostic staff must be a priority for the health service.”
She also highlighted the lack of a ‘cancer strategy’ – something that is in place in the rest of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland. A cancer strategy was produced in 2008 for Northern Ireland but has not been updated since.
“The Department of Health has said they are looking at the possibility of creating a new cancer strategy in 2019,” she said. “This is a welcome development.”