Nurses to perform bowel cancer tests

Last updated 13:16 29/07/2014

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The Government has announced some nurses will be trained to perform bowel-cancer tests as a crisis due to a shortage of medical specialists grows.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said specialist nurses would be trained to perform colonoscopies – a diagnostic test that can identify whether a person has bowel cancer and can find and remove pre-cancerous growths.

The first group of nurse endoscopists would begin training early next year.

The announcement came after the minister's office released to Fairfax Media a ministerial briefing paper from ministry officials. The paper revealed the Ministry of Health was projecting it could potentially recruit only slightly more than 40 new endoscopy specialists over the next decade.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates for bowel cancer in the OECD. The disease kills more than 1200 Kiwis every year.

Ryall has said a national bowel-screening programme was inevitable. However, current levels of specialists would struggle under the extra work such a programme would create.

A ministerial report shows the demand for colonoscopies already far exceeds the available supply.

"Estimate figures for the 2011-12 financial year show a total demand nationally of 40,926 colonoscopies with a shortfall of 9397 cases of unmet demand in that year," ministry officials said.

"If the bowel screening programme pilot is rolled out nationally, this shortfall will be exacerbated. The main lever Government has to improve supply is growing the colonoscopy-capable work force."

Ryall said today that expanding the role nurses played in bowel-cancer care would help address some of the work-force constraints to rolling out a national bowel cancer screening programme.

"We are investing heavily in helping DHBs improve their endoscopy services," Ryall said.

"Last year we invested an extra $3.6 million to deliver more colonoscopies. This was followed by a further $8m this year to improve waiting times for diagnostic tests, including colonoscopies."

Forty-one thousand colonoscopies were performed by district health boards in the 2012/13 financial year – a 20 per cent increase compared to 2008/09, he said.

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