Nine-month wait for bowel cancer test

 

PATIENTS CAN still be waiting up to nine months for crucial tests to determine if they have bowel cancer, new figures show.

The figures released by the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) yesterday indicate patients can be waiting up to nine months for colonoscopies at Dublin's Mater hospital, up to eight months at Cork University Hospital, and up to seven months at Sligo and Letterkenny general hospitals.

The data is based on returns provided by the hospitals to the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF), which now manages waiting lists.

Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in Ireland after lung cancer. There were 2,184 new cases diagnosed and 924 deaths from the disease in 2005.

The Irish Cancer Society expressed serious concern at the waiting times. It said patients should have a colonoscopy within six weeks of being referred by their GP.

Joan Kelly, the society's nursing services manager, urged people who have been waiting more than six weeks to take action themselves by contacting their GP to see if the test could be scheduled more quickly.

She also stressed that patients waiting more than three months for a colonoscopy should contact the NTPF, which arranges treatment free of charge in a private hospital for those waiting a long time.

Prof Colm O'Morain, consultant gastroenterologist at Tallaght Hospital, said the system could not currently cope with the numbers of patients presenting for colonoscopy unless more consultants were appointed and colonoscopy clinics were opened later in the evening and at weekends.

He said there was a big shortage of gastroenterologists able to do quality-assured colonoscopies in the Republic.

He pointed out that patients can be waiting weeks to see a consultant before they are then put on the waiting list for a colonoscopy, making the actual waiting time for many patients longer than the NTPF figures show.

He stressed the outlook for a patient with bowel cancer can be very good if it is caught on time. It can be "cured". However, he said, many patients present late with symptoms of the disease.

He urged people not to be embarrassed about talking to their GP about bowel movements if they are concerned about them.

He said the biggest risk factors for bowel cancer were family history and being over 50 years of age. For this reason it was important that a bowel cancer screening programme was put in place in the State for those aged 50 to 75.

A bowel cancer screening programme begins in Northern Ireland next year.

Screening has also been recommended for the South. The cancer society hopes funding sought by the National Cancer Screening Service to begin groundwork for the programme next year will be provided so a national screening programme can begin in 2010.