Susie Long, a mother of two from Callan, Co Kilkenny, contacted Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme to say she was dying of bowel cancer as a result of having to wait eight months for a colonoscopy, a procedure used to detect it.
In an email, she highlighted that a private patient had received a colonoscopy within three days of seeing his GP, but she, as a public patient, had had to wait months.
Ms Long, who died in October 2007, wrote: “I’m happy he’s going to live. He deserves to live. But so do I.”
So, too, do thousands of other patients still dicing with death nine years on. As the Irish Cancer Society reveals today, there are thousands of public patients nationwide waiting more than three months for a colonoscopy while private patients can have it done within less than two weeks.
The HSE has a target that no-one should have to wait more than 13 weeks for a test, but it is nowhere near meeting that. At the end of November, 3,510 public patients were waiting for over three months for the test, an increase of almost 1,000 since November 2014. Private patients, on the other hand, can get the test done within 12 days.
Bowel (colorectal) cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland, and almost 2,500 Irish people are diagnosed with the condition every year, with 1,000 dying from it. As the HSE is aware, survival rates from bowel cancer are closely associated with the stage at which a diagnosis is made. As with many other conditions, the earlier the better.
At present, more than half of people with bowel cancer are diagnosed in the later stages, requiring more complex treatment, with a poorer chance of survival. At one hospital, more than 80% have been waiting for longer than three months.
Considering the possible tragic consequences of such delays, the HSE should consider an alternative method of testing for bowel cancer that was developed earlier this year by Irish scientists.
Researchers from the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at Dublin City University and Donegal biotech firm Randox Teoranta have developed a €25 bowel cancer blood test kit that can spot the potentially lethal disease at an early stage.
If used, the 3,510 patients waiting more than three months could, in the meantime, be tested with this new device for less than €100,000. The new test was welcomed last February by the Irish Cancer Society, yet it does not appear to have been rolled out nationally.
In the aftermath of Ms Long’s campaign, the then health minister Mary Harney granted funding for a new 24-bed day unit at St Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny. The unit, which has been named after Ms Long, will open early in the New Year.
That is a fitting tribute to her courage and determination that no public patient should be deprived of medical care. A far better and longer lasting one would be a properly funded health service that actually delivers on its promises.