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Waiting Lists

Fears over colon cancer waiting lists as doctors face 'race against time' to diagnose patients

The Irish Cancer Society has warned that almost over a third of patients are not receiving the procedure within the necessary timeframe.

FEARS HAVE BEEN raised over the length of delays facing people awaiting the results of tests for colon cancer.

The Irish Cancer Society said it is also concerned that the winter surge in the country’s hospitals may have piled pressure on colonoscopy waiting times.

Rachel Morrogh, who is Director of Advocacy for the Society, said “doctors are in a race against time” to diagnose patients following an 18% drop in diagnoses during 2020 amid the pandemic.

One TD who spoke to The Journal said that they have been informed that 32 weeks is the waiting list in the private sector, while it up to a year for a colonoscopy in the public sector, with the results “taking weeks and months” afterwards. 

Morrogh also flagged the HSE’s revising downwards of its own targets for colonoscopies as significant, because it lowered its ambitions in 2016 from ensuring 100% of patients have a routine colonoscopy within 13 weeks of referral by their GP. 

The HSE instead has a target of 70% set for colonoscopies, which it is failing to meet as it lies at 65%.

The Society wants to see a “financed, staffed, resourced and realistic plan” to get the target back to cover all patients.

“Until the data on cancers diagnosed in 2021 and 2022 are available, we can’t tell if the undiagnosed cancers during the first year of the pandemic have been picked up,” Morrogh said.

“Thankfully, bowel cancer is often very treatable if caught early,” she said, adding that the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is 95 per cent if diagnosed at stage 1.

But Morrogh warned that this “falls to 10 per cent” at stage 4.

“We are concerned about long wait times for tests that are used to detect cancer. Delays in diagnosing cancer can lead to more invasive treatments, poorer chances of survival and lower quality of life,” she added.

“Thankfully, due to the work of HSE National Clinical Programme in Endoscopy enabled by funding from Minister Stephen Donnelly, some new and impactful initiatives have been put in place that have reduced waiting lists.”

The issue was raised with HSE chief executive Stephen Mulvanney last week when he appeared before the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee.

Mulvanney told the committee that wait times have been cut by 89% for conducting colonoscopies on patients waiting over 12 months for the procedure.

He said a separate list is in place for “urgent colonoscopies” where patients need one immediately.

“That’s a much shorter timeframe,” Mulvanney said.

The HSE did not respond in time for publication when asked about delays in providing results of the procedure.

The delays affecting the scheduling of the procedure are less severe, although four in ten people were waiting for more than 13 weeks for a routine colonoscopy as of October last.

“And we don’t yet have a picture of how the pressure on hospital services over the winter period may have affected colonoscopy waiting times,” Morrogh said.

Wexford TD Verona Murphy, who is the member of the Public Accounts Committee who raised the matter, said it was a significant issue.

“The private sector seems to have come under serious pressure due to this as well. 32 weeks I’m being informed is the waiting list in the private sector. We’re at 52 weeks for an actual colonoscopy in the public sector, with the results taking weeks and months after that.

“I am aware from people in my constituency that the system is coming under serious pressure, but it’s across the board now and is affecting the private system almost as much,” Murphy told this publication.

The Irish Cancer Society said that anyone who has been affected by long wait times can call the group’s support line on Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a cancer nurse and get information and support.”

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