Northern Health Trust members told of impact of Covid-19 on breast cancer clinic referrals

Just a quarter of women with suspected breast cancer in the Northern Trust area were able to see a specialist within 14 days of a referral in April, according to figures published by the Department of Health.

Monday, 26th October 2020, 12:14 pm

In May, 49.8 per cent were seen within this period and 51.3 per cent in June.

However, In the Belfast Trust area, 100 per cent of women with suspected breast cancer were seen within 14 days during these months and two months in the Western Trust.

In April, 99 per cent of women were seen within 14 days in the South Eastern Trust, 91.3 in the Southern and 93.7 in the Western.

Antrim Hospital.
Antrim Hospital.

Board members were told of a seven per cent increase in referrals during a meeting of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust board on Thursday.

They also heard that a fourth breast consultant is now in post. Members were told that this appointment has “given the team more resilience” and is “in a better place going forward”.

A spokesperson for the Northern Trust said: “Throughout the surge phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and specifically in the months April to June 2020, the service for patients suspected of breast cancer remained of paramount importance for the Northern Trust.

“For this reason the Breast Service continued with red flag, triple assessment clinics. Patients referred with suspect breast cancer require physical and radiological examination therefore patients were seen in face-to-face clinics.

“The biggest challenge to our service was to adhere to the extant social distancing requirements in the outpatient setting to ensure patients safety. Based on the environmental risk assessment this required face-to-face clinic slots to be reduced thus reducing the number of patients being seen at each clinic.

“Other factors that also influenced our capacity negatively at this time included medical staff and radiology staff absence exacerbated by Covid-19 situation.

“Patients who were shielding, or declined an appointment during the Covid surge show as a breach of the waiting time impacting on overall performance figures.

“To note, all patients who were diagnosed with cancer were treated within the 31 day target.”

Urgent breast cancer referrals saw an increase from 764 in April to 1,313 across Northern Ireland in June.

Commenting on the cancer waiting figures, Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The impact of Covid-19 on the Health and Social Care (HSC) system has been profound and long-lasting.

“Services, including cancer services, will not be able to return to normal for some time due to the continued need to adhere to social distancing.”

On Friday, the minister said he is “deeply disturbed that cancer procedures are being postponed” and  added that he is seeking assurances they will be rescheduled urgently.

Mr Swann stated that he will be “looking to the Trusts to reschedule cancelled appointments as soon as they feasibly can and to ensure that patients are kept fully informed”.

The minister said: “This situation is extremely distressing for patients and families and I sincerely apologise for the distress that has been caused.

“This is also a dreadful position for our healthcare staff and hospital managers to be in. The more critically ill Covid patients there are, the less staffing capacity we have in the system for non-Covid services. This is the dire reality that we find ourselves in.

“Stamping down on Covid-19 infection rates is now more critical than ever as reducing our rates helps to protect our cancer and other vital services.”

Read a previous health story here

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter.

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