Cancer strategy high up the waiting list of priorities

05 December 2018 - by Claire Flynn

The future for Northern Ireland in the post-Brexit era remains uncertain, as the drama around whether or not the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement will find a way through parliament continues.

But Brexit is just one issue of many awaiting resolution. A recent Belfast Telegraph report detailed the 164 decisions that have been left in limbo because of the collapse of power sharing at Stormont. Some of the most pressing decisions awaiting ministerial approval are those concerning health – particularly cancer.

Unlike Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland has not updated its cancer strategy in 10 years. Such a strategy is important to ensure that as the circumstances of cancer patients evolve, suitable services are in place to address their needs.

Cancer Research UK has described Northern Ireland’s 2008 strategy as 'out of date' and emphasised that a new approach must focus on prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and research.

Speaking recently at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, agreed that an insufficient portion of the departmental budget is spent on preventative measures.

By 2020, it is predicted that almost one in two people in Northern Ireland will develop cancer at some point in their lives.  These statistics demonstrate the realities of cancer in Northern Ireland and the pressing need for an updated plan to meet the challenges.

Interestingly, the Department of Health looks set to approve the development of a new blueprint by early 2019. This follows the announcement, in September, of changes to the Individual Funding Request process, which means that local cancer patients will have the same access to drugs as their peers across the rest UK. 

Roisin Foster, Chief Executive of Cancer Focus NI, warmly welcomed the news that a fresh strategy is likely to be approved.  "Cancer incidence is set to increase by over 60% by 2035," she said. "How are we going to cope with this huge increase if we don’t start planning now?"

At the time, the Department explained that the decision followed an 'extensive evaluation and public consultation exercise and fulfils a ministerial commitment to place clinical expertise at the heart of the sensitive and important decision-making process.'

So, fast forward to November 2018 and while still without a minister, departmental permanent secretary Richard Pengelly and his team continue to drive aspects of the reform envisaged by Bengoa and many others.  

The announcement of a strategy has been welcomed by cancer charities as well as by Paula Bradshaw MLA, Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s All-Party Group on Cancer.