The Department of Health has published proposals for the future of breast assessment services in Northern Ireland.
The proposals – involving services being consolidated on three hospital sites – will be the subject of a public consultation.
In the absence of change, waiting times for breast assessment are expected to worsen, with demand projected to increase in the years ahead.
A rapid review of breast surgery is also being initiated and will report by the end of the year.
Breast assessment services provide a “one stop” outpatient clinic appointment for patients.
They include referrals for breast symptoms which may be suggestive of cancer – known as symptomatic referrals. Also covered are referrals from breast screening mammography tests that indicated the need for follow-up assessment.
The public consultation proposes three breast assessment locations: Altnagelvin Hospital; Antrim Area Hospital; and a greater Belfast location, likely to be the Ulster Hospital.
The aim is to establish a model of care which will ensure high quality, safe, sustainable, accessible and timely services.
Richard Pengelly, Department of Health Permanent Secretary, said: “We have listened carefully to patient voices and it is very clear that timely access to care is the overriding priority.
“The way breast assessment services are currently delivered is becoming increasingly fragile.
“Staffing challenges are an important factor behind these pressures and demand for care – including urgent referrals for suspected cancer - is increasing.
“Sticking with the current model would mean ongoing and worsening vulnerability, with deteriorating waiting times for assessment. That would simply be unacceptable.
“Consolidating care on three sites means we can provide durable and quality services, for the benefit of patients and staff.”
A centralised appointment booking system is also planned as part of the proposed reforms.
The future model of care will also include the establishment of a regional Breast Assessment Network to shape and support service provision for the population of Northern Ireland.
The public consultation will run for 12 weeks. There are no plans to change the current breast screening arrangements.
The proposals in the document reflect the work of the Breast Assessment Project Board, led by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and Public Health Agency (PHA) and comprising patient representatives and clinical and nursing leaders from across Health and Social Care.
Patient views were also sought through research work by the HSC Leadership Centre. It indicated that the length of time waiting for an assessment appointment was the most important priority.
Notes to editors:
- Currently in Northern Ireland, breast assessment services for symptomatic referrals are provided by all five Health and Social Care Trusts (at Altnagelvin, Antrim, Craigavon, Belfast City and Ulster hospitals). Breast assessment following breast screening tests is provided by four Trusts, with Belfast Trust (Linenhall Street) covering the Belfast Trust and South Eastern Trust areas.
- The Department has increased the number of radiology trainees from 37 (in 2014) to 50 and remains on course to reach 54 by 2020.
- The public consultation document is available to view on the department's website.
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