Northern Ireland

GP says waiting times in NI are 'horrendous'

A woman in hospital gown
Image caption Some women in the Southern Trust are having to wait up to 35 weeks for a routine breast referral

A GP has described waiting times for non-urgent breast surgery in Northern Ireland as "horrendous".

Some women in the Southern Trust are having to wait up to 35 weeks for a routine breast referral.

Others who are referred urgently may have to wait up to three weeks. The recommended target for an urgent referral is 14 days.

The trust has said currently 95% of women who have been given an urgent referral are being seen within 14 days.

The BBC has seen figures for September that showed one woman had an 82-week wait time for routine breast surgery. The trust has stressed this figure may not necessarily relate to cancer.

However, according to some GPs, cancer may be diagnosed following breast surgery.

Dr Frances O'Hagan said she is constantly turning patients away as they wait to see a hospital consultant.

Image caption Dr O'Hagan said some patients have to wait 21 days just to see a consultant

She said: "From our point of view waiting, for example, 35 weeks for a routine breast appointment for a woman is so stressful.

"Within that time patients remain unwell."

She added: "We have referred them with a problem that needs sorted out and they are coming back to our door on a repeated basis because they are anxious, upset and potentially they are getting sicker."

"While the target for the most urgent of cases, known as red flag referrals, is 14 days, the latest figures from the Southern Health Trust reveal many are waiting 21 days just to see a consultant.

Image caption The Southern Health Trust serves a population of some 300,000 people

'Spiralling out of control'

The Cancer Charity, Cancer Focus NI, says missed targets must be taken more seriously by the Department of Health.

Representatives from the charity met the health minister at Stormont on Monday. They told Michelle O'Neill the issue is spiralling out of control.

Image caption The cancer charity say minsters must take action

The charity's chief executive, Roisin Foster, said they had urged the "minister to take action".

"We said waiting times must be taken seriously when they are breached and that there must be action planned to reverse what is currently happening," she said.

Ms Foster also said that the waiting times are imposing unnecessary stress on men and women.

"Certainly the calls to our nurse line have increased recently particularly about red flag referrals, and patients are worried, they are confused and very emotional," she said.

Image caption Roisin Foster is concerned about the stress that waiting puts on patients

She added that high priority patients are told to expect to be contacted by hospitals quickly, but then hear nothing.

"Their GP is telling them they are concerned about a symptom and they are making them a red flag referral - so that means they must be seen within 14 days," she said.

However, Ms Foster has said the majority of callers are concerned about long-term wait - those considered to be non-urgent.

"But then no letter comes. No telephone call from the hospital comes.

"The patient rings and they are told by the hospital that there is a waiting list and it will be two, three, perhaps four months before they are seen."

Waiting times

The BBC showed Dr O'Hagan statistics, compiled by the Department of Health, which reveal the waiting times for all specialities in the Southern Health Trust:

  • A referral for routine urology surgery is 142 weeks while an urgent surgery referral is 136 weeks. The recommended target is 13 weeks.
  • A routine referral for a gastroenterology appointment is currently 71 weeks while an urgent referral is 46 weeks. The recommended target is nine weeks.
  • A routine referral for a geriatric orthopaedics appointment is 73 weeks - while an urgent referral is 27 weeks. The recommended target is nine weeks.

While not everyone will have to wait this long, these are the figures that health officials are working to.

Image copyright Frans Rombout
Image caption Routine referrals may take up to 35 weeks

While some of the above specialities are not directly related to cancer, according to Dr O'Hagan many will eventually emerge with a cancer diagnosis.

A spokesperson for the Southern Trust said: "The trust has worked hard to improve our breast cancer service following a brief dip in performance earlier this year. 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.

"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."

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