IS this area stuck on the losing side of a postcode lottery on breast cancer treatment?

That’s what one North Down MLA fears after new statistics showed less than one in 10 patients were seen within the government target of two weeks after an urgent referral to specialists.

The local NHS Trust’s performance on breast cancer is now the worst in Northern Ireland, and over the course of nine months plummeted from seeing 95% of patients within the mandated 14 days to just 8.6% in that time limit.

Yet patients in the Belfast or Western trusts will see much better results, as in those areas almost all were seen within two weeks of a referral.

That has MLA Alan Chambers alleging that a postcode lottery is in place, decrying the local Trust’s performance as ‘a deplorable and totally unacceptable situation’.

Officials from the South Eastern Trust said that they’re ‘aware of the current pressure’ on breast cancer services and are attempting to ‘increase capacity while maintaining quality of care’.

According to recently released figures, from July to September last year 723 people were referred for breast cancer treatment in the South Eastern area.

Government targets say that all of them should have been seen by a specialist within 14 days, but only 62 of those 723 people were seen within that timeframe.

But from October to December 2022, 95% of local breast cancer patients were seen within 14 days.

The statistics show a precipitous fall in the South Eastern Trust’s performance over the first nine months of 2023, to the point that the figures are not just the worst in the province but the worst the Trust has recorded over the last 15 years.

In the past, falling performance figures have sometimes been explained by large increases in the number of patients needing treatment – but in this case, almost exactly the same amount of people showed up when the Trust was seeing 95% of patients as when it only managed 8.6%.

Two other health trusts have also recorded sharp declines; the disparity between different districts led Alan Chambers to brand the situation a postcode lottery, stating: “The figure of only 8.6% of suspected breast cancer patients in this area seen within 14 days is unacceptable.

“The fact that the figure is so far below the Northern Ireland average of 53%, and the fact that the Belfast Trust and Western Trust have close to a 100% compliance with the 14 day target, will be a major concern for local patients.

Mr Chambers blamed the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive for the problem, arguing that it made pre-existing funding issues in cancer services even worse.

“I’d question whether the party currently blocking the restoration of the Executive will even read the latest waiting times report; if they did, I’m not sure they could sleep at night knowing the actual devastating harm that their actions are having,” he said.