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Waiting list Scan delays are risking health of cancer patients, leading oncologist warns

More than 630,000 people now on waiting list to see specialist

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Cancer patients are continuing to suffer delays in getting scans vital to their diagnosis and assessment amid growing concern over hospital waiting lists, a leading oncologist has warned.

Professor Seamus O'Reilly, consultant medical oncologist at Cork University Hospital, said scanning systems are up and running again after being hit by the crippling cyber attack on the HSE in May, but doctors are struggling with a backlog of patients.

"The cyber attack happened when catch-up programmes were in place to deal with backlogs which built up during Covid-19. The health system was already behind," he said.

Prof O'Reilly said the access difficulties risk causing delayed diagnosis and could affect the prognosis of some patients.

"You could also order a test by email but you are not sure if the email is gone," he told the Herald.

He was speaking as it emerged the waiting list for public patients needing surgery for a range of conditions jumped by 10,000 since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, with at least 77,000 now in a queue to get an operation.

More than 630,000 people are on outpatient waiting lists to see a specialist.

However, the true figures are still not known because the collection of data was hampered by the cyber attack.

Prof O'Reilly called for more priority for tackling lists for colonoscopies, which can detect signs of bowel cancer, and also gastroscopies examining the gullet and stomach.

He also stressed the need to ensure the HSE is not vulnerable to another cyber attack.

Although Government promised to offer a new Sláintecare contract, worth up to €252,000 annually, to recruit hospital consultants - who would work exclusively with public patients - from June, it remains bogged down in a row with doctors and around 700 specialist posts are unfilled.

"To look after patients we need people. We were short 700 consultants before the pandemic. The Sláintecare contract caused a lot of upset and is unacceptable to a lot of people," Prof O'Reilly said.

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Doctors' organisations have raised concerns about so-called gagging clauses, lack of clarity where a medic is taking a grievance against their employer and also on ownership around intellectual property and innovations the medics may come up with.

Prof O'Reilly called for flexibility around contracts for specialists to attract doctors to work here.

"They have to reflect how people want to work today. At some stage they may want to work part-time, raising families. One size does not fit all," he said.

"In England there is the 'new deal for surgery' to maximise human capital. If you are a surgeon you can opt to do two or three sessions a week and the pay will reflect that. But you are able to use your experience and training as much as possible. That is what we need."

Despite a promise to have the new contract active by June, the Department of Health refused to offer more information on progress or on targets that are in place for recruitment this year.

"Engagements are ongoing to progress a process of talks between the Department, HSE officials, and representative bodies for hospital consultants," a spokeswoman said.

"As these important discussions are currently ongoing, it would not be appropriate for the Department to make further public comment at this time."

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