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Niall Hunter: Outrageous wait for bowel cancer screening is an insult to the memory of Susie Long

It's an insult to the memory of Susie Long.

Almost 1,900 people, nearly all, you can be sure, public patients, are waiting more than three months, and in some cases over a year, for colonoscopy tests. These are, in most cases, used to check for bowel cancer.

No self-respecting health system should tolerate a waiting list of this length -- including many worried people who think there may be a possibility they have cancer.


Many of these patients cannot afford to 'skip the queue', go privately and get the test done elsewhere more quickly.

There should be no 'second-class carriage' when it comes to getting quick access to cancer testing and treatment.

Back in 2007, when Susie Long died of bowel cancer after waiting seven months as a public patient for a test, we were told such a tragedy wouldn't happen again.

Now, four years later, there could be a similar tragedy waiting to happen.

This is despite promises that everyone would have quick and equal access to colonoscopies.

In recent years, public hospitals implemented 'one for all' waiting lists for tests like colonoscopies. We were told that quick access to these tests would be based on medical need and not financial means.

Now we have 'common' public hospital waiting lists for tests, but you won't find many private patients on them. They take one look at the length of the 'one-tier' list in some hospitals and get the test done more quickly in a private clinic.

Common public-private access to tests is all very fine, but the concept is meaningless if no resources are put into hospitals to reduce waiting times.

The HSE tells that nearly all 'urgent' bowel tests -- that is the ones where patients and their GPs may have a high suspicion of cancer -- are carried out within a month.

So the public system is pretty safe then? Well, not as safe as it could be.

Some people awaiting a colonoscopy for over three months could potentially have bowel cancer, even if they're not officially classed as 'urgent' by the system.

The Irish Cancer Society has said we have no national definition of what constitutes an urgent and non-urgent case -- potentially some cancers could pass through the net.

Some patients without obviously severe symptoms could be put on a 'non-urgent' waiting list but could turn out to have bowel cancer.

This is a cancer that needs to be detected and treated early -- many people without severe symptoms at first can end up having advanced cancer.

There should be no real distinction made between urgent and non-urgent colonoscopies when they are being done to check for signs of bowel cancer.


There shouldn't be a waiting list for this type of cancer checking -- 'urgent' or 'non-urgent' -- not longer than a month anyway.

If the Irish Cancer Society is concerned about the length of this waiting list and the list is growing every month, the public has a right to demand that the HSE and the new Minister for Health make sure no one has to wait for this vital test in a public hospital.

This is one area where admittedly scarce resources cannot be scrimped on. It could be a matter of life and death.

Niall Hunter is Editor of irishhealth.com