Radiographers at Cork University Hospital have agreed to extend their working day after concerns that some cancer patients are not receiving radiotherapy within the recommended timeframe.
The HSE target states that 90% of patients undergoing radical radiotherapy should commence treatment within 15 working days of their doctor deeming them ready to treat.
However, Dr Paul Kelly, a consultant radiation oncologist at CUH, said they had been operating “at max capacity” before Christmas and had been unable to meet the 15-day target in some breast cancer and prostate cancer cases.
“We were certainly slipping. There was a bit of a backlog in November and December and the number being treated within 15 working days was declining.”
Because capacity at the hospital is limited — the department has four radiation machines and treats approximately 2,000 patients per annum — Dr Kelly said they had to prioritise the more serious cases.
“Generally when capacity is limited, the more aggressive cancers get priority, so the patients with slow-growing tumours are the ones who are inconvenienced. The majority were either breast cancer or prostate cancer cases,” said Dr Kelly.
One patient who contacted the Irish Examiner and was given a cancer diagnosis in September said his treatment started just before Christmas. “I wasn’t the only one. Treatment was being deferred because of overcrowding,” he said.
Dr Kelly said the issue of delayed treatment was raised at a meeting last spring, but came to a head in October/November.
“We [the clinicians] were agitating for a solution. It was frustrating for patients and their doctors. It was eventually agreed that radiographers would extend their working day beyond their basic day of 8am-6pm. Things had to get to a certain point before that happened.”
The radiographers began working extended hours on January 1 and Dr Kelly said their extra work was “already having the desired effect” and things were “improving” for his patients.
He said he was grateful to hospital management.
However, doctors are unsure how long this arrangement will last.
Figures from the HSE’s most recent quarterly performance report (July to Sept 2017) show while 100% of patients attending the Mid Western Radiation Oncology Centre, Limerick, and UPMC, Whitfield, Waterford, were referred within the 15-day target time, just 52% were meeting the target in Cork.
The report describes Cork as an “outlier”.
Nationally, 76% of patients deemed ready for treatment by their doctor are commencing treatment within the 15-day timeframe.
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