By Catherine Shanahan
A LEADING specialist has warned of a cancer time-bomb if the Government fails to rapidly invest in the expansion of radiotherapy services.
Professor John Armstrong, a consultant radiation oncologist at St Luke’s Hospital in Dublin, described as "very disturbing" demographic data that points to a 41% increase in the incidence of cancer by 2015.
"We have an ageing population. We have the statistics which show cancer rates are growing. We don’t have a good track record in keeping ahead of the posse. Even at this moment in time, we don’t have the facilities in place to cope with the number of patients requiring radiotherapy treatment."
The Government-commissioned Hollywood Report (The Development of Radiation Oncology Services in Ireland) pointed out that Ireland has the weakest radiation oncology services in Europe.
Just 35% of patients here get radiotherapy treatment compared with 60% in the USA.
Prof Armstrong warned that the Government cannot afford to delay plans to get the private sector involved in expanding radiotherapy services, by way of public private partnerships (PPPs) that would see private operators would build, design, finance, manage and partially run new radiotherapy facilities.
He said that had no "philosophical objections" to the involvement of the private sector in healthcare, but added: "There is concern in the radiation oncology community that, because we are entering unchartered waters, it will take a considerable length of time before the PPPs are up and running."
Prof Armstrong, a member of the expert group that drew up the Hollywood report, disagrees with its endorsement of centres of excellence.
"I don’t think the expert group looked closely enough at the type of models that could have worked well in Ireland," he said.
Prof Armstrong mentioned the hub-and-spoke model whereby a central unit is linked to a number of peripheral units.
This model, he said, yielded a dramatic improvement in the number of people using radiation oncology services in Norway and other countries, underlining the importance of access contrary to the findings of the Hollywood report.
Prof Armstrong said the argument against satellite units was "not as cut and dried as saying the population is not large enough".
He was critical of the Government’s decision not to provide radiotherapy services in the north-west and called for a transport framework for cancer patients, adding that he had asked for an investigation into how economically disruptive cancer is to patients.
Separately, in a speech given as part of the Royal College of Surgeons Charter Day Meetings, Prof Armstrong warned that the current greatest threat to progress in radiotherapy services is capacity.
"The progress in radiotherapy technology is advancing incredibly quickly and because of capacity issues in Ireland, our patients are not able to take advantage of all the advances, particularly in the area of breast cancer," he said.