Target waiting times for cancer tests not being met, specialists warn

Open letter to Taoiseach points to insufficient investment in infrastructure, and radiotherapy services operating ‘significantly below’ capacity

Target waiting times for cancer tests are not being met and surgeries are “frequently delayed” due to shortages in staffing, beds and theatre space, the country’s leading specialists have warned.

In an open letter to Taoiseach Simon Harris, the clinicians pointed out that dedicated funding for Ireland’s National Cancer Strategy had been delivered in only two of the last seven budgets.

Mr Harris, who was minister for health when the 2017 strategy was published, has been urged to reverse what they describe as a decision to “provide no new recurrent funding” to the National Cancer Control Programme in 2024.

Setting out various shortfalls, they point to insufficient investment in infrastructure despite rising cancer cases, and radiotherapy services operating “significantly below” capacity.


“We are falling far short of the already modest target of 6 per cent of cancer patients participating in clinical trials. Ireland is also one of the slowest countries in western Europe to make new medicines available to public patients,” the letter says.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, they point out that Ireland had the third-highest cancer mortality rate in western Europe. “Given the pressure our services are currently under, Ireland’s cancer outcomes are at risk of going backwards.”

Irish Cancer Society chief executive Averil Power said the views of the 20 cosignatories underlined what her organisation had been flagging about insufficient funding.

“Their stark letter lays bare the delays and disruptions to care that patients and their families face every day. This must serve as a wake-up call to the incoming Taoiseach and his Government,” she said.

The letter follows comments on Monday from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly who said while large-scale State investment in funding and staffing in recent years was working and reducing waiting lists, productivity in the health service had to increase.

“Our consultants are working just as hard as they ever have but they are getting less time to spend on outpatients,” he told RTÉ radio.

“What we are seeing over a period of time from 2016 onwards is that they are seeing fewer patients in a given year than they use to. Now, that is not their fault.”

He said while doctors accepted the numbers of medical staff had increased, they need to see the level of support increase too.

Additional staffing and funding allocated to the health service had resulted in a vast increase in the number of patients being treated, according to the Minister. However, he said this was not commensurate with the amount of additional resources being provided.

Between 2016 and 2022 the health budget had increased by more than €8 billion and staffing numbers by 30 per cent but Mr Donnelly pointed to new analysis showing activity was not keeping pace.

“We have 2,500 more doctors, 5,600 more nurses and 3,700 more support and administrative staff. And yet, as this analysis shows, activity in our hospitals has increased by less than 10 per cent over the same period,” he said.

In a statement, the Department of Health said in 2021-2022, €70 million had been allocated as additional funding for cancer services, including €40 million new development funding and €30 million for new cancer drugs.

“This significant investment has had a real impact on access to cancer diagnostics, treatment and supports,” it said.

More than 670 new staff had been recruited in national cancer services since 2017, it said, including 200 nursing staff, 100 consultants and 180 health and social care professionals in designated cancer centres.

“Treatment in medical oncology, radiation oncology and surgical oncology services also continues to improve,” it said, adding that Ireland compared favourably to other EU countries for uptake in breast, cervical and bowel screening programmes.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times