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Data Problems for Oncology Waiting Times

Data Problems for Oncology Waiting Times Being Resolved

The Ministry of Health is working with District Health Boards to resolve issues surrounding the new way waiting times for cancer treatment are being recorded, spokesperson Dr Colin Feek said today.

"The change ihas caused some issues for the six centres doing oncology treatment, mainly because new information being sought was not previously recorded," said Dr Feek, Deputy Director-General of Clinical Services.

Dr Feek said the wait times had previously only recorded the interval for patients from their first specialist assessment by an oncologist, to beginning radiation treatment. The new wait times measure the interval starting at the patient's referral from a medical practitioner to the oncology department, and to the beginning of radiation treatment.

Other changes to the recording system include increasing the number of categories of patients waiting for treatment from one to three. The three categories are:

Referral-to-department to first specialist assessment by a radiation oncologist (category A); First specialist assessment by a radiation oncologist to the beginning of radiation treatment (category B); and Referral-to-department to the beginning of radiation treatment (category C).

"Category B is essentially the old wait times. The number of weeks recorded in Category B has also been amended to more accurately reflect treatment patterns and clinical practice. There remains considerable debate among health professionals about the best way to measure the most clinically relevant wait times."

"All these changes have caused various issues for the centres, among them the customising the software and data collection systems. We are getting there, but in the meantime we have been periodically updating the waiting times website with the information that is available. The latest information was due to go up at Easter, and has now been posted."

"It's important to note that waiting times have not deteriorated significantly since the information was last posted."

Dr Feek said the change in reporting requirements came about as a result of a Waikato District Health Board decision in April 2001.

The DHB decided it was in the best interests of the clinical management and treatment of its cancer patients that patients had a shorter time between their first specialist assessment with an oncologist and the start of radiation treatment.

The patient waits longer for the first specialist assessment than at other cancer treatment centres, but this wait is balanced by a shorter wait between assessment and radiation treatment.

"However from a data point of view, it meant direct comparisons with the other treatment centres weren't possible, so as a result of a Health Select Committee request, we asked all DHBs that provide radiation treatment to include the time from referral to first specialist assessment as well," said Dr Feek.

Dr Feek said although the currently available information had been posted, gaps and fragmentation would make comparisons of this data difficult, but repeated the assurances given by the DHBs that overall the waiting times are still being managed appropriately.

"The information on wait times is always several months behind as the process takes some time between when the data is collected, collated and presented.

"We have publicly acknowledged, again as recently as last week, that some people are waiting longer than ideal in some centres, caused largely by staff shortages of radiation therapists."

"This is an international problem and unfortunately there are no quick fixes. It's a distressing situation when patients face waiting times for treatment that are longer than recommended. The Ministry is working with the centres to ensure we have appropriate measures in place to manage this as well as possible, for example, the offer of quicker treatment at other centres or Australia."

Dr Feek said under this scheme, between 1st December 2001 and the 15th of April this year, 133 patients had been sent to Australia.

"As well there are a number of other initiatives also being undertaken, such as the increased intake for training radiation therapists in 2001, from 17 to 28. This larger intake will be available for employment from next year," he said.

He emphasised that the Ministry is committed to openness in providing information on cancer treatment waiting times.

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