HSE promises GPs fast access to scans for cancer symptoms
One in five family doctors lacking access to vital ultrasounds
GPs are being promised 'fast track' access to scans for patients who may be displaying symptoms of cancer, after it emerged that some 'urgent' cases are waiting eight weeks for examination.
This is vital for women with vague symptoms, which could turn out to be ovarian cancer, known as the 'silent killer'.
They are facing delays because a GP is forced to send them to a hospital outpatient clinic first, rather than directly referring them for a scan.
Dr Jerome Coffey, the HSE head of cancer services, said a survey had found gaps in some areas of the country, where GPs have no direct access to ultrasound scans.
"We are going to fix that. We need to say to GPs they will get their patient seen in a timely manner," said Dr Coffey, interim national director of the National Cancer Control Programme.
A fast-access system was now being piloted in St James's Hospital in Dublin and the results would show the most efficient way to roll it out nationwide, he said.
The Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) found that one in five family doctors had no direct access to abdominal or pelvic ultrasound scans for their public patients.
But in contrast, private patients could be seen in just four days.
Dr Brian Osborne, a GP in Galway, told the Irish Independent: "Access to ultrasound for patients in the public hospital system in Galway was withdrawn a few years ago.
"The lack of access to this basic investigation leads to delays in diagnoses. These delays can potentially lead to worse outcomes for patients.
"If we wanted to access an ultrasound, we would have to refer to the hospital outpatient department. It could be months before a patient is seen in the outpatients and then a request is sent from there, with a further period of many months before the investigation is performed.
"In extreme cases, we can contact the consultant radiologist by phone to try and expedite an ultrasound request for our patients - but in the majority of cases the outpatient route is how it is accessed. There have been indications recently that the service will be restored, but with a potential wait of seven to eight weeks for urgent cases and up to a year for routine cases."
Dr Mark Murphy, spokesman for the ICGP, stressed that access to diagnostics was crucial in cancer diagnosis. Patients presenting to GPs typically have symptoms which may not be specific or and can be vague.
"Cancer often presents in an indolent way, over many months, with vague symptoms. For example, bloating of the abdomen usually means irritable bowel syndrome but it could be ovarian cancer or bowel cancer in certain circumstances.
"There's a risk or probability of cancer, going from high to very low. But the risk is always there and diagnostics are essential to rule it in or out."
Dr Coffey said that if patients were waiting a few weeks for a scan it would not affect the outcome of their disease, adding: "But on a human level, people want to know as quickly as possible."
Some 376 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer annually and there may be no obvious symptoms until it is at an advanced stage.