Cancer diagnosis - Scandalous 25/1 odds for private care

A study undertaken by the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) shows that public patients have to wait up to 25 times as long as private patients for tests to diagnose cancer.

That is disturbing and shocking but not surprising, given the appalling state of our healthcare system.

Those 25/1 odds in favour of people with deeper pockets points to endemic failures not just in our health service but in political governance as a whole.

As most people are now aware, early detection is a matter of life and death when it comes to surviving most forms of cancer. Every day matters and, while diagnosing, testing and treatment costs money, failing to detect cancer in time costs lives.

The survey of general practitioners found that, in some cases, public patients have had to wait up to 480 days for an ultrasound, up to 360 days for an endoscopy, 280 days for an MRI, 240 days for a brain scan, and 200 days for a chest scan.

Public patients wait an average of four to five months for an MRI of the spine, musculoskeletal system, or brain, while private patients are being tested in less than a week.

According to the Irish Cancer Society report, close to 90% of GPs surveyed said that the patient’s ability to pay affected their access to referral services.

In other words, the grim reality of the Irish healthcare system is that the difference between life and death can come down to a person’s ability to pay.

The liklihood is that this situation is going to get worse, unless whatever government emerges from prolonged talks commits to ensuring a health service that cares for patients on the basis of what they need and not on what they can afford.

The real tragedy of this is that we are on the cusp of finally defeating the most deadly disease of the modern age.

In the last two decades we had made huge strides in combatting all forms of cancer, with survival rates rising all the time. Last year data from the National Cancer Strategy revealed that the majority of Irish cancer patients survive the disease for at least 10 years and that many cancers have now become chronic rather than fatal conditions.

Nevertheless, the ICS study should be taken as a wake-up call not just for politicians and health professionals but for us all. We have to decide what kind of country and society we want and what we are prepared to do to achieve it.

Many writers, philosophers, and politicians have spoken about what makes a civilised society. Mahatma Ghandi once remarked that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.

In his last speech, Hubert Humphrey, the former vice- president of the US, put it more eloquently when he said: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

If we are to judge a society by those measures, then 21st century Ireland is decidedly uncivilised.


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