Cancer Treatment Bulge - Recruitment New Equipment
2 May 2001
Recruitment and New Equipment in train to Counter Cancer Treatment Bulge
A co-ordinated recruitment drive and commissioning of new equipment are in place to help deal with a continuing bulge in the numbers of patients waiting for cancer radiation treatment, the Ministry of Health said today.
The Ministry and cancer treatment services predict the bulge in cancer treatment waiting lists to continue till June due to increased demand for services linked to a worldwide shortage of experienced staff and aging equipment in some New Zealand hospitals.
Ministry Chief Medical Advisor Colin Feek said figures up to the end of March show that 56.7 percent of patients needing radiation therapy started their treatment on time (within four weeks of the decision to treat), while 20.8 percent had to wait four to six weeks and 22.3 percent had to wait more than six weeks.
A year ago, the figures were 75 percent of patients starting treatment on time, 17.5 percent waiting four to six weeks and 7.5 percent more than six weeks. There are no waiting lists for chemotherapy and hormone therapy used to treat cancer patients.
The increase in demand is because new techniques and technology mean that previously untreatable cancers can now be successfully treated. People who previously would have died from their cancers are now being treated, Dr Feek said.
As an immediate response to the bulge in waiting times, the Ministry of Health increased funding for radiation therapy treatments by 14 percent to $31.9 million - compared with $27.1 million last year.
Both the Ministry and cancer treatment services are working as well as they can to deal with the issue, Dr Feek said.
Auckland District Health Board has been advertising overseas for radiation therapists and any extra applicants would be referred to other cancer treatment centres in New Zealand.
Health Waikato has been flying acute patients to Australia for treatment and a new linear accelerator to provide radiation treatment is now up and running at Waikato Hospital. Another three linear accelerators are being commissioned to replace aging machines in Auckland, Palmerston North and Dunedin.
There is a time lag before linear accelerators are able to be used for treatment as they require special bunkers to be built and then time consuming calibrating of the machines to ensure appropriate doses are delivered accurately. Commissioning can take between four to eight months.
In the meantime radiation therapists are being flown from Palmerston North to Auckland to assist with the biggest numbers of patients requiring treatment.
The Ministry has also increased funding for radiation oncology training at the University of Otago, with the radiation therapist class size up 53 percent to 28 students, from 17 students previously. However, training radiation therapists takes several years and while recruitment drives for radiation therapists, medical physicists and radiation oncologists have produced positive results, the bulge in the number of patients waiting for radiation therapy is expected to stabilise in the middle of this year then gradually improve after that.
Waiting times for radiation treatment are similar or worse elsewhere in the world because of the worldwide increase in demand and shortage of trained staff.
The Ministry's approach to this issue includes coordinating cancer treatment services with a wider Cancer Control Strategy. Reducing the incidence and impact of cancer is one of the 13 priority objectives of the New Zealand Health Strategy and the coordinated approach being developed covers prevention, early detection, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care.
For more information contact: Peter Abernethy, Communications Manager, ph: 04-496-2008, 025-477-036 Internet address: http://www.moh.govt.nz/media.html
Peter Abernethy Manager Communications Corporate & Information Directorate Ministry of Health DDI: 04 496 2008