Cancer demand swamps health services

There are concerns over the length of time cancer patients are waiting to see specialists or...
There are concerns over the length of time cancer patients are waiting to see specialists or begin treatment. Photo Getty

Cancer patients around the country are waiting months to receive their first bout of potentially life-saving treatment as hospitals struggle to keep up with demand.

Dr Chris Jackson
Dr Chris Jackson

One worried man, whose mother has just been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, said the diagnosis and wait for treatment would put a damper on what was likely to be the family’s last Christmas with her.

A Dunedin oncologist said more people being diagnosed with cancer and greater treatment options were putting a strain on the health system.

The most recent figures published by the Ministry of Health showed the number of people diagnosed with cancer each year increased by 4247 between 2005 and 2014 to a total of 23,023.

Latest ministry health target results showed between April and June only 81.4% of cancer patients with a high suspicion of cancer received their first treatment within 62 days of being referred to a specialist.

Waitemata, Waikato, Canterbury and Nelson Marlborough district health boards hit or exceeded the ministry’s 85% target while the other 16 fell below it.

The worst performing health board was West Coast where 44% of patients waited longer than 62 days to be seen, while in Whanganui 36% of patients waited longer than two months.

A man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer after an X-ray taken a few weeks ago found a lesion on her lungs .

A biopsy confirmed it was cancer and the family were told there was nothing they could do to save her, although chemotherapy could prolong her life.

However, he was shocked when he was told she would not be able to be seen by an oncology specialist to discuss treatment until after Christmas, making a busy season even more stressful.

"It's always in the back of your mind when you're trying to do your other festive things," he said.

When the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asked about the reason for the delay he was told it was because there was so much cancer now.

Cancer society medical director Dr Chris Jackson said the length of time cancer patients were forced to wait to see a specialist or begin treatment was a serious concern.

As a practising oncologist in Dunedin, he had to tell two patients this week that they could not start chemotherapy before Christmas because the oncology units were too busy.

‘‘That must be unimaginably stressful for people who are waiting,’’ he said.

Public holidays creating short weeks over Christmas was part of the problem but cancer services were coming under ever-increasing pressure all year around.

The ageing population meant more people were being diagnosed with cancer and an increase in treatment tools meant more people were able to be treated, he said.

Pharmac was now funding new drugs to treat cancers but there was no extra funding for more doctors and nurses to deliver the treatments, meaning oncologists had to juggle even more patients.

‘‘While it’s great we have these extra tools, we haven’t been given the tools to implement it properly.’’

Dr Jackson said it was shocking to see how far off hitting the treatment targets some health boards were.

Getting people treated quickly was essential, he said.

‘‘Whenever anybody hears the words, ‘You’ve got cancer’, their whole world stops. Your whole life stops while you’re waiting for that [treatment] to occur, so we have an obligation to get people treated as quickly as possible.

‘‘Cancer doesn’t get smaller. The longer people wait, the bigger their cancer gets.’’ 

The targets

85% of patients receive their first cancer treatment within 62 days of being referred with a high suspicion of cancer and a need to be seen within two weeks.

The target increased to 90% in June 2017.

Health boards were also expected to provide a first treatment to patients confirmed to have cancer within 31 days of a decision beingmade to treat them.

First cancer treatments can include surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and non-intervention management such as active surveillance or palliative care.

Add a Comment