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Wednesday, July 8, 1998 Published at 01:54 GMT 02:54 UK

Health: Latest News

Cancer patients waiting

A lack of radiotherapy machines may mean risky delays for patients

BBC's Breakfast Time on the Royal College report
A shortage of radiotherapy machines is leading to some cancer patients having to endure unacceptable delays in treatment, according to the Royal College of Radiologists.

Despite the government's emphasis on cutting cancer deaths, the college says Britain cannot meet targets for cancer reduction unless the NHS gets the money for 92 new radiotherapy machines. Each machine costs £1.5m and they have a 10-year life span.

Cancer cases are rising by 5% a year and the government's recent Green Paper on public health said it aimed to reduce cancer deaths of people under 65 by 20% by the year 2010.

Rolling programme

The college says 44 machines need urgent replacement and it is calling for the government to pay for a rolling programme to replace 10% of all machines a year.

The college has also carried out an audit which showed a link between machines and waiting times.

[ image: Hospitals with more radiotherapy machines have shorter waiting times]
Hospitals with more radiotherapy machines have shorter waiting times
The region with the lowest amount of machines - the North-west - had the highest waiting times for treatment.

However, the North West regional health authority says it has made many improvements since the audit was carried out and has opened a new radiotherapy centre.

Wales, with the highest number of machines per person, was second best for waiting times.

Unacceptable delays

According to the Joint Council for Clinical Oncology, urgent cancer cases should be seen within 24 to 48 hours. The longest acceptable delay for people needing radical therapy is 28 days.

But a survey for the college conducted in February showed that on average 28% of patients were waiting longer than these recommendations. Thirty-two per cent of people needing radical therapy were facing unacceptable delays.

The college is calling for a national strategy for providing radiotherapy equipment, including a long-term capital investment plan.

Serious under-provision

Dr Dan Ash, registrar of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: "Radiotherapy is a very important element in cancer treatment, both for cure and the relief of symptoms, and it's going to be for a long time to come.

"Because of the serious under-provision of equipment, patients are having to wait much longer than they should for treatment."

He added: "What effect this is having on the ability to cure patients is hard to say, but cancer has to be treated early and if you leave it, it goes on growing. Therefore the situation can only be getting worse."

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