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Gastroenterology services have been overwhelmed by the response in the South to the national bowel cancer screening programme, and have had to schedule weekend colonoscopy sessions to keep up with demand.
Bowel cancer screening, a nationwide programme for men and women aged 60-74 years of age, is being gradually introduced throughout New Zealand.
The Southern District Health Board started in April last year.
Notes from a South Island regional centre meeting of the national bowel cancer screening programme, with which the Otago Daily Times was supplied, suggested that the service is under severe pressure.
While still meeting its target for more than 90% of patients to be seen within accepted waiting times, "Southern is starting to have a capacity and demand issue", and was looking at putting on weekend shifts to cope, the document said.
Jason Hill, SDHB clinical leader of the screening programme, confirmed high volumes of patients meant weekend shifts were put on to treat them.
"Due to the overwhelming success of the screening programme, and Southern having the highest participation rates in the country, the number of colonoscopies required has exceeded predicted demand," he said.
"This has placed a challenge on the service that is being addressed in part by utilising some colonoscopy lists on weekends."
The SDHB was working on further strategies to ensure that it could sustainably continue to meet waiting times expectations in the future, Dr Hill said.
"Despite the challenges that the success of the programme has brought, Southern DHB will continue to actively promote the programme, as the health benefits to our community have already been clearly demonstrated.
"By the end of November 1, 23 cancers had been detected that would otherwise have been diagnosed at a later stage, and over 160 patients have had polyps removed which, if left, could potentially have developed into cancers."
The Southern DHB region has more elderly and Europeans than most other parts of New Zealand — people at high risk of bowel cancer — meaning it has one of the highest rates of the disease in the country.
In December, the SDHB announced results from the first six months of the screening programme.
More than 14,000 screening kits had been sent out, 68% of the kits sent out in the first two months being returned for testing — better than the national target of 62%.
The meeting notes also raised the question as to whether test results were reaching all GPs, and if some patients were having lengthy waits after showing possible symptoms of the disease.
"The only issue in this regard for Southern is where patients do not explicitly consent to their GP being notified," Dr Hill said.
"Where a patient is not notified of a positive result by their GP within 10 working days, they are contacted by the DHB."
• 23 cancers detected earlier
• 160 patients’ polyps removed
• 14,000-plus screening kits sent out