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Efforts To Counter Cancer Treatment Delays

Efforts Continuing To Counter Cancer Treatment Delays

COOPERATION between cancer services and ongoing recruitment efforts mean waiting times for cancer radiation patients are expected to start improving over the next few months, although lists lengthened slightly during April, the Ministry of Health said today.

It is expected the bulge in cancer treatment waiting lists will continue for several more months until extra staff from a coordinated recruitment drive and new equipment are in place to help reduce the length of time patients wait for radiation therapy, said Ministry of Health Chief Medical Advisor Dr Colin Feek.

"Waiting times have not improved as much as we would have hoped and we know the delays remain unacceptable, especially for patients and their families. However, the long-term situation appears set to start improving in several months time.''

There has been an increased demand for services linked to a worldwide shortage of experienced staff and aging equipment in some New Zealand hospitals.

Dr Feek said figures to the end of April show 50.1 percent of patients needing radiation therapy started their treatment on time (within four weeks of the decision to treat), while 26.1 percent had to wait four to six weeks and 23.7 percent had to wait more than six weeks.

A year ago, the figures were 73 percent of patients starting treatment on time, 20 percent waiting four to six weeks and 7 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.

The Ministry of Health responded to the increase in waiting times by increasing 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 were working hard to reduce the length of time patients waited for treatment but it was a difficult situation, Dr Feek said.

Auckland District Health Board said new short-term staff were helping waiting lists hold steady. There were also plans to send 10 Auckland patients to Palmerston North for treatment. As long as no more staff resigned, waiting times should start reducing over the next few months as additional long-term staff recruited from overseas took up positions, Dr Feek said.

"It's hoped they will be able to start running existing machines to capacity over the next two to three months and begin to push out treatment hours."

Preparations for a sixth linear accelerator are on track and it is expected to be up and running in October.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.

Replacement machines have also been commissioned for Dunedin and Palmerston North.

Health Waikato is still sending acute patients to Australia and seeking staff, although its replacement linear accelerator is up and running.

END


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