Patients face delays in getting urgent appointments for breast cancer checks

ONE in five patients in urgent need of assessment for breast cancer is not being referred for evaluation within the required two-week timeframe.

The longest delays occurred at Dublin’s Mater Hospital, according to an analysis of referral times for the first seven months of the year.

Figures contained in a Health Service Executive (HSE) report show just over half (615 out of 1,155) of patients attending the Mater, who were urgent referrals, were offered an appointment within two-weeks. Failure to accommodate patients within this timeframe is a breach of standards set down by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA).

The Mater also performed poorly in referrals of non-urgent cases, where the standards require that patients be seen within 12 weeks.

In this case just 45.2% of patients were referred within that time.

Yesterday a statement from the Mater Hospital said the delay was due to the closure of a unit for refurbishment and the vast majority of referrals are now being seen on time.

“The unit was closed for refurbishments for four months in 2009 in order to accommodate a second digital mammogram machine. Extra clinics have been run since this period of downtime in order to catch up on referrals. The hospital has eradicated the backlog for urgent referrals and is seeing more than 95% of them within two weeks,” the statement said.

The Mater did have a 100% compliance rate with the requirement that all newly diagnosed breast cancer cases be discussed by a multi- disciplinary team.

Cork University Hospital (CUH) had a 100% compliance rate across all three standards, the only hospital out of the eight so-called “centres of excellence” to achieve such success. This means all urgent (578) and non-urgent (1,278) cases were referred on time and all new breast cancer cases (15) were discussed at multi-disciplinary meetings.

Waterford Regional Hospital and the Mid West Regional Hospital in Limerick did not perform as well. In Waterford, almost three in 10 “urgent” referrals were not given appointments within the two-week timeframe and three in 10 non-urgent referrals were not seen within 12 weeks. In Limerick, more than half of patients considered “non-urgent” were waiting more than 12 weeks for an appointment.

Nationally, out of 6,194 breast cancer cases in need of urgent assessment, 1134 patients were not seen within two weeks during the first seven months of the year. Of 12,030 non-urgent cases, one in five was not referred within 12 weeks.

However, since January, referral rates have improved for non-urgent cases, although urgent cases went from a high of 89.3% in May to 80.6% in July. All but one of 1,142 newly-diagnosed cases were discussed at multidisciplinary meetings. However, one in five patients with a primary diagnosis of breast cancer did not have surgery carried out in one of the eight designated cancer centres.


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