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National Cancer Strategy ‘A Plan Without Action’, Oireachtas Committee Hears

The head of the Irish Cancer Society told the Joint Committee on Health that people in Ireland today are not being given the best possible chance of surviving cancer because of a lack of funding.

The committee heard that between 1998 and 2018, when the first two National Cancer Strategies had been completed, five-year cancer survival rates increased from 44 per cent to 65 per cent.

Under the current strategy, which runs from 2017 to 2026, a number of commitments were given, including the expansion of screening services, improving treatments and providing more support for cancer survivors.

“The Irish Cancer Society was proud to sit on the steering committee that developed the strategy, and expected it to lead to further significant improvements in cancer survival rates here,” said the charity’s CEO Averil Power.

“However, inadequate Government funding and the impact of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis and treatment, means we are no longer confident that will be the case.

“In fact, we are concerned that Ireland’s cancer outcomes may have stagnated or even disimproved since the strategy was published. Without proper funding, the National Cancer Strategy is a plan without action.”

Ms Power expressed the hope that, given that the new Taoiseach was Minister for Health when the current cancer strategy was published, Simon Harris will take the strategy “back off the shelf” and “make sure that it’s properly funded so that we deliver those outcomes that people deserve.”

While the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) has received a total of €70 million in extra funding to implement the strategy since 2017, this falls far short of the €110 million the strategy’s authors initially estimated would be needed to fulfil its commitments in the areas of cancer control.

In the last two years, the NCCP has received no additional funding for the strategy, which has hindered progress on a range of targets, such as the funding of a hereditary cancer model of care which was published last June, and the expansion of bowel screening services.

Currently, bowel cancer screening is open to those aged 59-69. Last week, IMT reported that the Department of Health declined to give a timeline for when the age of eligibility for bowel screening will be expanded to the targeted 55-74-year-old age group, despite commitments made in both the National Cancer Strategy and Programme for Government (2020) that this would be prioritised.

The Irish Cancer Society also pointed to increased waiting times for radiation therapy, sparked by a critical shortage of staff. Recent figures highlighted that more than one-third of patients don’t start treatment within the recommended timeframe.

According to SIPTU, State-of-the-art radiotherapy machines and CT scanners are lying idle because of a lack of staff. This includes linear accelerator (LINAC) radiation therapy machines in both St Luke’s and St James’s Hospitals which are completely unstaffed, while the new radiation oncology centre in Galway University Hospital has one LINAC and one skin treatment machine that are each open for just two hours a day.

Also attending the Oireachtas Health Committee, the National Director of the NCCP Prof Risteárd Ó Laoide said that discussions are underway to find solutions to the staffing crisis, including how the visa process for essential healthcare workers from overseas can be expedited so that they can enter the Irish workforce faster.

More radiation therapists are working overtime to help clear backlogs, while patients with the most acute need are being prioritised. Radiation therapists are also exempt from the current HSE recruitment freeze, he said.

Prof Ó Laoide added that AI may soon also provide a solution to the crisis, as its potential role in radiation oncology is already becoming clear.

“It’s coming in very rapidly to facilitate processes like contouring and auto-contouring that take a lot of time in the radiation process. And we’re today actively looking at bringing that in,” he added.

HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said that progress has been made in the further centralisation of cancer surgeries, as well as the resourcing of rapid access clinics, new patient pathways in breast and prostate cancers, and the introduction of new drug treatments.

“Given the importance of early diagnosis and treatment planning for cancer outcomes, expanding access to diagnostics is key and the HSE is currently examining how best to improve on this,” he said. “The ability to recruit and retain the specialist, multi-disciplinary workforce needed to deliver on the cancer strategy is essential.”

(Source: Irish Medical Times)

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