‘Never been as much investment’ in cancer services, says Donnelly, as specialists call for more

Open letter from clinicians warns target waiting times not being met and surgeries ‘frequently delayed’ due to staff and bed shortages

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said he would like more funding to go towards the National Cancer Strategy and will advocate for it in the next Budget.

However, defending the Government’s record, he said there had “never been as much investment” in cancer services. He told reporters on Tuesday that it had to be ensured oncologists and cancer specialists had access to diagnostics, operating theatres and outpatient clinics at weekends.

The Minister’s comments come after some of the country’s leading specialists warned target waiting times for cancer tests are not being met and surgeries are “frequently delayed” due to shortages in staffing, beds and theatre space.

In an open letter to Taoiseach Simon Harris, the clinicians pointed out that dedicated funding for Ireland’s National Cancer Strategy had been delivered in only two of the last seven budgets.

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Mr Harris, who was minister for health when the 2017 strategy was published, has been urged to reverse what they describe as a decision to “provide no new recurrent funding” to the National Cancer Control Programme in 2024.

Setting out various shortfalls, they point to insufficient investment in infrastructure despite rising cancer cases, and radiotherapy services operating “significantly below” capacity.

Mr Donnelly said there had never been as much investment in cancer services and “we don’t unfortunately see those letters get written”.

“The reality is, over three of the four years in Government, there’s been very substantial investment into the National Cancer Strategy. In fact, I funded them in the first two years to the tune of €14 million, they weren’t able to spend that money in the first two years and so that continued to roll on into the third year.”

The Fianna Fáil TD later added that the National Cancer Strategy was an important funding stream and like doctors, he wanted “more funding in there”.

“Obviously, that’s something I will advocate for going into the next budget for 2025,” he said.

Mr Donnelly said it was important to recognise that “things are getting better for patients” and he would continue to strive to get urgent patients quick access to referral services.

“I can understand frustration from surgeons when they are seeing surgeries pushed because of pressures from people coming in through the emergency department, unscheduled care,” he said.

“One of the things we have to make sure we do is that we are using our operating theatres seven days a week, that we’re using them in the early mornings, that we’re using them in the evenings.

“We need to make sure that our cancer healthcare professionals or oncologists have access to diagnostics at the weekends, have access to theatre at the weekends, have access to outpatient clinics at the weekends as well and that really is what the new public only consultant contract is about, moving from a scheduled nine to six Monday to Friday hospital service to seven days a week including mornings and evenings as well.”

Separately, Mr Donnelly said it had to be ensured the State was “getting value for money” from public nursing homes and an audit into them was being conducted to see if there were cases whereby “staffing ratios could be looked at”.

“When we see such a big disparity in the cost base between the private homes and the public homes, I think it’s important that we do an audit in order to see if there is money that can be saved,” he said.

The Minister added that he wouldn’t make “any judgments” ahead of the audit and that the disparity between public and private nursing homes in terms of costs could be “completely legitimate”.

“If it is [the case], it won’t be touched, but maybe we will be able to find areas where some of the public nursing homes for example, are doing better than some of the others and we can learn from them.”

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