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Bowel test waits reach record levels
[Posted: Mon 18/06/2012 by Niall Hunter, Editor www.irishhealth.com]
The number of people awaiting colonoscopies is still reaching record levels despite a HSE initiative to cut waiting times for these vital tests.
The initiative was launched last autumn when numbers waiting over three months for bowel tests reached 2,418 - then a record.
However, latest figures* provided by the Department of Health to irishhealth.com show that in spite of this, 2,552 people are currently waiting over three months for a 'routine' colonoscopy, which is often used to check for bowel cancer.
While the HSE says nearly 100% of patients requiring urgent colonoscopies are tested within a month, it has failed to cut waiting lists over three months for what are officially designated as 'non-urgent' colonoscopies.
The Irish Cancer Society has frequently stressed that a distinction should not be made between 'urgent' and 'non-urgent' bowel tests. It says while people with obvious symptoms such as bleeding may be classified as urgent and tested quickly, many without obvious symptoms who are deemed not to be urgent can end up being diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Last August, with colonoscopy waits at what were then record levels, the HSE said it was launching an initiative with the assistance of the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) to cut these waiting lists, aiming to carry out 3,500 bowel tests by the end of 2011 through the use of unused capacity in hospitals and carrying out tests on Saturdays.
However, latest figures show that at the end of December last, there were still 2,379 patients waiting over three months for a colonoscopy.
This peaked at 2,698 at the end of January and was 2,552 in April, the most recent month for which figures are available.
The figures show that in April, there were 7,089 awaiting colonoscopies, inclusive of those waiting under and over three months. The total figure for December last was 6,431.
HSE figures for April also show that a greater number of patients than usual were waiting more than a month for an urgent colonoscopy.
A total of 32 patients were waiting more than 28 days for these tests at the end of April, compared todseven the previous monthg. Twenty-nine of these patients were at Tallaght Hospital, but the HSE said all outstanding urgent tests will have been carried out by this week.
The Department of Health said since January, although demand was rising, there had been an incremental increase in the percentage of patients waiting less than three months for 'non-urgent' bowel tests.
It said Minister Reilly's Special Delivery Unit (SDU) had started an action plan to tackle colonoscopy waiting lists.
A Department spokesperson told irishhealth.com that the target for 2012 was that no person should wait longer than three months for a routine colonoscopy.
The Department said in order to support hospitals in achieving this target, the SDU had started a performance improvement programme with the aim in the short-term being to eliminate the numbers waiting over three months for a colonoscopy.
Programmes of support, it said, were being agreed with individual hospitals that would see the longest waiters having their procedure carried out.
The spokesperson said the medium and long-term aim was to ensure clinically appropriate referrals, standardised pathways of care, 'sustainable short waits' and to facilitate the initiation of the planned national colorectal screening programme, which is due to start later this year.
However, with hospitals clearly still under pressure to meet demands for symptomatic testing, a 2012 start for the population screening programme may now be in doubt.
* At the end of December 2011 there were 6,431 patients waiting for a colonoscopy (63% < 3 months, 37% > 3 months).
At the end of January 2012, there were 6,582 waiting for a colonoscopy (59% < 3 months, 41% > 3 months).
At the end of February 2012, there were 6,636 waiting for a colonoscopy (60% < 3 month, 40% > 3 months)
At the end of March 2012, there were 6,875 waiting for a colonoscopy (62% < 3 months, 38% > 3 months).
Preliminary data for April 2012, there were 7,089 waiting for a colonoscopy (64% < 3 months, 36% > 3 months)
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