Cancer Treatment: Hospital Facilities

Oral Answers to Questions — Health, Social Services and Public Safety – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 12th March 2001.

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Photo of Ms Pauline Armitage Ms Pauline Armitage UUP 3:00 pm, 12th March 2001

3. asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to give her assessment of the current quality of service at Belvoir Park Hospital and in particular the equipment being used to treat cancer patients.

(AQO 1021/00)

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

8. asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail when the new cancer unit at Belfast City Hospital will be operational.

(AQO 1025/00)

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

Le do chead, a LeasCheann Comhairle, glacfaidh mé ceisteanna a trí agus a hocht le chéile ós rud é go mbaineann an bheirt acu le seirbhísí ailse.

I will take questions 3 and 8 together since they both relate to cancer services.

Cuireann Ospidéal Belvoir Park seirbhísí uasleibhéil ar fáil atá ag cur leis an tsábháilteacht agus le cumas an trealaimh. Tá an trealamh radaiteiripe ag tarraingt ar dheireadh a shaoil úsáidigh, agus le himeacht ama cuirfear trealamh úr ina áit san ionad ailse úr ag suíomh Ospidéal Chathair Bhéal Feirste. Faoi láthair, tá Iontaobhas Ospidéal Chathair Bhéal Feirste ag aithbhreithniú cás gnó don ionad ailse a chaithfear a réiteach taobh istigh de Rialtas. Nuair a thabharfar an faomhadh seo agus nuair a dhéanfar an cinneadh deireannach ar sholáthar beidh sé soiléir cá huair a bhéas an t-ionad ailse úr réidh. San idirlinn, tá mé meáite ar a chinntiú go mbeidh seirbhísí ailse sábháilte éifeachtacha ar fáil ag Belvoir Park agus glacfaidh mé cibé céimeanna a bhéas riachtanach le seo a chur i gcrích.

Belvoir Park Hospital provides services at the maximum level consistent with the safety and capacity of its equipment. The radiotherapy equipment is nearing the end of its useful life, and in the longer term it will be replaced by new equipment in the new cancer centre at the Belfast City Hospital site. The Belfast City Hospital Trust is presently revising the business case for the cancer centre, which will need to be cleared in Government. The date for the completion of the cancer centre will be clear only when this approval is granted and a final decision on procurement is taken. In the meantime, I am determined to ensure that safe and effective cancer services continue to be available at Belvoir Park, and I will take whatever steps are necessary to achieve this.

Photo of Ms Pauline Armitage Ms Pauline Armitage UUP 3:15 pm, 12th March 2001

I asked the question because Belvoir Park Hospital has a fine record of care, commitment, understanding and medical expertise. Treatment at Belvoir has saved many lives, including my own. The new cancer service at the Belfast City Hospital may not be operational until 2004. Until then, I hope, Belvoir, the staff and the patients will not be made to suffer because of lack of funding. Some of my constituents have, on occasion, travelled to Belvoir, only to be told that the equipment had broken down and the treatment could not be administered. I know that the breakdown is not the Minister’s responsibility, but it is her responsibility to make sure that equipment is functional.

Photo of Ms Pauline Armitage Ms Pauline Armitage UUP

My question is about equipment. Will the Minister secure funding? As it is a long time until 2004 and the new City Hospital centre, what does she propose to do for my constituents who travel to Belfast and find that their treatment cannot be administered? Ultimately we are wasting money on the ambulances and minibuses used to take those patients to Belvoir when there is no treatment for them. I am thinking only of the Department’s finances.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

I agree absolutely with several points made by the Member. First, I join her in commenting on the fine record of Belvoir Park Hospital and of the staff who have done a tremendous job there. Equipment breakdowns result in the disruption of services. That is absolutely to be regretted. It has happened recently. The effects have been minimised, in some cases, by the continuing efforts of the clinical and scientific staff at the hospital, but it is to be regretted that anyone should make their way to a hospital for treatment, only to find that it is not possible because of equipment breakdown.

My Department has asked Belfast City Hospital Trust to assess the capacity of the radiotherapy equipment at Belvoir Park Hospital. I consider urgently any proposals for the short-term replacement of such equipment, to ensure the effective continuation of services while the new cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital is being developed.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

I thank the Minister for her answer. She will recall that the decision to move cancer services from Belvoir to the City Hospital was taken in 1998. That now looks extremely out of date. The latest evidence from Belvoir suggests that the equipment is on its last legs. Unlike Ms Armitage, I suggest that it is the Minister’s responsibility to find money to make that equipment fully serviceable. I welcome the £4 million that she is putting into the new cancer facility at the City Hospital, but is this just papering over the fact that the Department’s plans for combating cancer in Northern Ireland are in tatters?

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

The Member will know that he and I often have discussions about the tone in which he asks or ends his questions. However, I agree that I need to look, and I will look, at whatever needs to be done — whether that is the replacement of existing equipment or the provision of additional imaging or radiotherapy facilities — to ensure that cancer patients receive timely, high-quality care and treatment. It is clear from the Programme for Government, the budget allocations and the priorities for action that I have set out that the development of cancer services remains a high priority for my Department.

On the issue of the decisions around the completion of the cancer centre, the Member should know that in 1999 an outline business case was prepared on behalf of Belfast City Hospital Trust and was approved at a total estimated cost of £32 million. This envisaged the new cancer centre being operational from the end of 2003. The trust has recently indicated that, owing to significant and rapid developments in cancer services and new building requirements, the cost of the project may be considerably higher. My Department has therefore asked the trust — as I know the Member would expect it to do — to urgently revise its business case and to resubmit it for consideration. That process will inevitably cause some delay to the completion of the project.

Photo of Dr Joe Hendron Dr Joe Hendron Social Democratic and Labour Party

My question follows on from those of Ms Armitage and Mr McFarland.

I know that the Minister is concerned about the very serious situation in cancer services in Northern Ireland. Cancer cannot be treated until it is diagnosed. My question relates to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The Minister has heard me, on a number of occasions, talking about positron emission tomography. The most important thing at the moment is to do with MRI scanning, not just in Belfast City Hospital but in other parts of Northern Ireland. Can the Minister give me an answer on that?

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

As I told the Committee recently, we have an imaging strategy that we are seeking to put forward at present. The idea of the extension of MRI scanning is a very major part of that. I will be able to come back to the Member, and to the Committee, shortly on the details of how we can proceed with that. Some of the bids that we have made will obviously have an impact on how quickly we proceed with some of our objectives.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Is the Minister aware that people have to wait up to two and a half years for MRI scans? A constituent of mine was told after six months that he would get an MRI scan but that it would be in 22 months’ time. Further to that, is the Minister aware that many people are having operations cancelled because there are not enough intensive care beds? Many people who have to receive thoracic surgery — in particular, to remove cancer — cannot have the operations because of the lack of intensive-care beds.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

If the Member writes to me with the details of any of the cases he has mentioned I will be happy to respond in writing.

We have recently taken action on the waiting list for MRI scans. In particular, a mobile unit was made available. I refer the Member to the announcement that I made about Altnagelvin. We have a strategy to put in place. Specifically, part of the priority of that will be to deal with the whole question of MRI, because we know that there are waiting lists there and that that does need improvement.

I cannot comment on the specific cancelled operations that the Member mentioned — he would need to send me the details. However, I have said many times in this House that the capacity in our hospitals at present is not the capacity that is needed, due to years of underfunding of health and social services. I have asked, and will continue to press the case with, my Executive Colleagues to have further resources made available.

The ‘Priorities for Action’ document, which was issued on 9 March 2001, outlines my priorities for the coming year. The improvement of capacity, in order to ensure that people have access to hospital services and to deal with a continuing high level of demand and winter pressures, is one of those priorities.