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Patients with rare cancer say it's 'disgraceful' consultant role hasn't been filled for over two years

The Sarcoma Action & Support Group has called for Health Minister Simon Harris to intervene.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/sfam_photo

A SUPPORT GROUP for patients with a rare type of cancer have said it is unacceptable that a specialist consultant position remains unfilled three years after it was created.

A consultant was due to take up the role on 1 September, after a lengthy delay, but on 17 September informed St Vincent’s University Hospital (SVUH) in Dublin they could no longer do so due to personal reasons. 

The position was re-advertised on 6 October, three years after it was first advertised. 

The Sarcoma Action & Support Group has described the delay in filling the role as “disgraceful”. It has appealed to Health Minister Simon Harris to intervene and ensure there are no further delays. 

Harris announced the creation of the post in July 2016 and it was approved by the Consultant Appointments Advisory Committee the following September. The position was first advertised in October 2016 and two candidates were interviewed in March 2017. One of the candidates was offered the position and a “pre-employment process” began.

A sarcoma specialist, Dr Alexia Bertuzzi, previously worked at SVUH but her temporary contract ended in January 2017 when she returned to Italy for work. At the time, thousands of people signed a petition calling for her to be retained or replaced.

The support group said that when they contacted SVUH at various stages since 2017, they were informed that the start date kept being pushed back. Earlier this month, they were told that the oncologist has turned down the position.

Sarcoma is a rare type of bone and soft tissue cancer that accounts for 1% of all cancers diagnosed and 15% of childhood cancers. About 200 to 250 people in Ireland are diagnosed with the disease each year, and are required to be under the care of a specialist oncologist.

Surgery is the main treatment for sarcomas, but radiotherapy, chemotherapy and biological therapy are also used as needed. Sarcomas are best managed by a specialist multidisciplinary team which can include clinicians and other medical personnel, as well as health and social care professionals, based in several hospitals. 

Patients in Ireland are currently being treated by oncologists who specialise in other cancers. The support group said these doctors are “doing an excellent job under increasingly difficult circumstances”.

“None of these medical oncologists are sarcoma specialists. Whilst we understand that there is a multidisciplinary team in place for sarcoma patients, it is missing a key member of the team – the medical oncologist who specialises in this type of cancer,” a group spokesperson said.

Timeline unclear 

A spokesperson from SVUH confirmed to TheJournal.ie that the specialist was due to commence working at the hospital last month but “declined to take up the role for personal reasons”. They did not elaborate when asked about how long it could take to fill the position. 

The spokesperson added that patients’ ongoing care and management is being undertaken by a multidisciplinary at the hospital “which has all of the relevant specialties including surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology and pathology for the care of patients with sarcoma and other cancers”.

The support group has raised concerns about how long the process could take given the length of time that has already passed. It noted that Harris recognised the need for a full-time sarcoma specialist over three years ago and called on him to step in and “ensure there are no further delays”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told TheJournal.ie SVUH Is a voluntary hospital and “therefore operates its own recruitment policy and has full discretion regarding appointments”. 

The spokesperson noted that multidisciplinary teams in both SVUH and Cork University Hospital “will continue to provide excellent care” for sarcoma patients. They added that a National Clinical Lead in Soft Tissue Sarcomas is in place and will continue to oversee services for these patients. 

“Patients have their cases presented and discussed at one of the two sarcoma multidisciplinary teams and members of these teams have links with European specialists in sarcoma,” the spokesperson said. 

More information about sarcoma can be read here and here.

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Órla Ryan

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