TWO out of every three local cancer patients are stuck on waiting lists for longer than targets say they should be to start treatment. That’s according to newly released provincewide figures, which show that in the South Eastern Health Trust area only around 35% of people given an urgent referral by their GP start their treatment within two months.

    That’s the worst result in Northern Ireland, and also falls far short of NHS targets that say 95% of urgently referred patients should start treatment within 62 days. It’s also the worst result the South Eastern Trust has recorded since the 62-day target was introduced 14 years ago. Figures show that for the last seven years, the Trust has been bouncing between treating 40% and 60% of patients within two months – but has now dipped to a historic low. The Trust says that it’s experiencing an unprecedented amount of demand for its cancer services, with the number of people referred by their GPs now not just back to pre-Covid levels, but higher than they ever were. The NHS authority also pledged to look for extra cash from central government to help it meet the increased demand. Published by the Department for Health, the new statistics show the state of cancer waiting lists across Northern Ireland’s five health trusts in September of last year.

    The figures also show that the percentage of patients starting treatment within one month of a decision to treat has improved, up from 80% in March 2022 to 90% in September. The 80% figure was an abrupt fall to an historic low, however, and the 90% figure means performance still hasn’t fully recovered from that slump. It’s also not hitting the NHS target of starting treatment for 98% of patients within one month of a decision to treat, a benchmark the South Eastern Trust last reached at the end of 2015. But the Trust’s 90% figure is at least slightly above the Northern Ireland average, which currently sees 88% of patients start treatment within one month. A Trust spokeswoman stated that ‘demand for cancer services currently outstrips capacity in the South Eastern Trust’ area. She said: “There has been a 17% increase in red flag referrals in the first eight months of [the 2022/23 financial year] compared to the same period in 2019/20. “Although the performance percentage may have dropped, activity levels have increased and this is reflected in both the 31-day and 62- day targets. “The Trust is continuing to rebuild cancer services post-Covid and it is important to stress there are now more referrals than there were prior to the pandemic, across all cancer sites. “The Trust is doing its utmost to provide excellent cancer services for patients at a very challenging time and will seek additional resources, in collaboration with the Department of Health, to meet the increasing demand.