Public patients wait up to 25 times longer for cancer tests

Patient’s ability to pay affects access to referral, Irish Cancer Society report finds

Public patients wait an average of 119-125 days for an MRI of the spine, musculoskeletal system or brain, while private patients are tested in under six days, the report shows. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Public patients wait an average of 119-125 days for an MRI of the spine, musculoskeletal system or brain, while private patients are tested in under six days, the report shows. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Waiting times for potentially lifesaving tests for cancer are up to 25 times longer for public patients than for those paying privately, a new report reveals.

The report highlights “striking differences” in access for public compared with private patients, with GPs reporting some public patients have to wait up to 480 days for an ultrasound.

Public patients wait an average of 119-125 days for an MRI of the spine, musculoskeletal system or brain, while private patients are tested in under six days, the report commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society shows.

Waiting times for public patients for abdominal or pelvic ultrasounds average between 72 and 81 days, whereas private patients are seen in five to six days.

Paying privately

For CT scans of the brain, chest or abdomen, public patients wait an average of 47-55 days, compared with six days for patients paying privately. The waiting times for gastrointestinal tests such as colonoscopies averages 58-60 days in the public system, against 10 days privately.

The only area where public patients enjoy relatively equal access to diagnostics is for chest X-rays, where they are seen within two days. Private patients are seen on a next-day basis. The figures for waiting times are based on information provided by GPs surveyed by the Irish College of General Practitioners for the report, which will be published today. It describes the long delays for public patients waiting for tests other than chest X-rays as “unacceptable”.

The importance of the tests and scans is not limited to cancer patients, it points out: “They are also essential for diagnosis of other potential serious conditions. As such, the reported waiting times relate to all patients in the system”. As a result of the difficulty accessing tests, many GPs says they send patients to hospital emergency departments, thereby worsening the overcrowding there.

Wider variation

Not only are waiting times for public patients far longer, but there is also a much wider variation between the shortest and longest waiting times for people in the public system. GPs reported some public patients waiting 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.

The farther a patient lives from a hospital the longer the patient has to wait for many tests, according to the study.

A patient’s ability to pay privately “always” or “usually” affects access to referral services, according to almost 90 per cent of doctors surveyed. “Delays in accessing diagnostics force many patients to pay for scans and tests privately to secure diagnosis. As a result, a patient’s ability to pay is linked to their ability to access diagnostics used to detect cancer in a timely manner.”

The report says cases of suspected cancer should be seen within two weeks as in the UK and guidelines for colorectal, ovarian and non-melanoma skin cancers should be rolled out.