Govt gives ultimatum on cancer

Last updated 05:00 23/04/2009

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Cancer patients will have to be treated within a month or health chiefs may be sacked under tough new Government targets.

All cancer patients requiring radiotherapy would have to be seen within a month by December next year, a health sector source told The Press. By July next year, health boards must ensure all cancer patients are seen within six weeks.

Health Minister Tony Ryall has already warned that failure to meet new targets could result in health chiefs losing their jobs.

Currently, all patients should be seen within six weeks but targets are often not met.

The tough new cancer treatment targets are on a list of priorities due to be announced by the Government soon.

The previous Labour government had 10 health targets for health boards.

However, it was understood the National Government would pare back these targets to six, but toughen the standards that boards had to meet.

Ryall told The Press yesterday that he was consulting with the health sector on targets. They were being reviewed "to ensure they were still relevant".

Last month, Ryall said waiting times had to be cut, and that executives would be held accountable.

Ryall wrote to health board chief executives and chairmen, saying if they did not make significant progress towards meeting the new targets, the Government would "review their performance and perhaps find someone who could".

The performance of cancer services was "unacceptable" and many people were waiting longer than necessary for life-saving radiotherapy treatment, he had said.

Nationally, more than 100 cancer patients a month waited longer for radiotherapy than the four-week limit set by cancer specialists, recent Ministry of Health figures had shown.

In January, 38 per cent of Canterbury cancer patients waited longer than four weeks for radiotherapy and 18 per cent waited longer than six weeks, the region's head of radiation therapy, Ian Ward, told The Press last month.

At present, there are no incentives or disincentives for district health boards (DHBs) to achieve radiotherapy wait-time targets. Each DHB's annual plan is an agreement to work towards achieving the target.

Cancer Society chief executive Dalton Kelly said any efforts to cut waiting times were "fantastic". He could not recall a time when health services had met cancer treatment targets, which meant New Zealanders got less than adequate care.

Cancer experts agree the ideal radiotherapy treatment time is less than a month in all cases, and sooner in more critical situations.

Canterbury District Health Board chief executive David Meates said he was confident the new targets could be met, although the DHB had infrequently achieved those targets in the past year.

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The CDHB was "fast-tracking" the installation of a new linear accelerator, which provided radiotherapy. Fast-tracking the building of a fourth bunker meant a new accelerator could operate while an older one was decommissioned, Meates said.

Radiology staff had also worked extra shifts to try and cut the backlog, Meates said.

In recent weeks, everyone requiring radiotherapy was seen within six weeks, he said.

WAIT - 'A REAL STRESS'

Every second of every day waiting for radiotherapy feels like an eternity.

That was the experience of Sumner's Catherine Bibbey, who underwent the treatment for breast cancer a decade ago.

Bibbey discovered a lump and was told by a doctor that it was not abnormal following pregnancy. However, when she consulted another doctor months later, it became clear the lump was something sinister.

An emergency biopsy picked up the cancer and Bibbey had a partial mastectomy, paid for by her private medical insurer, two weeks later.

Bibbey said she waited about six weeks for her radiotherapy, which was critical after she chose a partial rather than full breast removal.

"You want to get treatment as fast as possible, because that will give you the best outcome."

Every day for a month she received radiotherapy.

Bibbey had since become a volunteer counsellor for the Canterbury Cancer Society.

In this role she talked to young people recently diagnosed with cancer.

"The feeling is that radiotherapy waiting times are an issue and a real stress. They worry that while they are not getting radiotherapy, the cancer is growing. I would be climbing up the wall if I couldn't get treatment when the doctors recommended it."

- KIM THOMAS, The Press

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