Wednesday, 29 November 2006
I have tabled this important matter on the Adjournment to seek clarification of the current status of co-operation between Belfast and Donegal regarding facilitation of cancer patients. I ask not as a matter of concern but for clarification, since the relationship is evolving. I acknowledge the good work that has been done to date and the negotiating team that has set up the facility in Belfast to give people in Donegal the choice between there and Galway.
I also seek clarification of the arrangements regarding the different levels of cancer treatment and who is being facilitated. Are all patients being given the choice, or is there a select group? As I stated, co-operation between Belfast and Donegal is evolving, but ultimately we must keep the Donegal public well informed. I have anecdotal evidence which suggests that a patient in Donegal was not being facilitated in Belfast within the past few days, and that is what caused me sufficient alarm to table this matter. However, it may have been the case that the proper mechanics had not been set up between Belfast and Donegal.
In a general sense, I initially welcomed this co-operation, as I would any in an all-Ulster context. However, it is most important that the people of Donegal and the north west be assured that this will not be a long-term solution. Galway and Belfast are still peripheral to the north-west region, and it is politically very important that the pressure be maintained to ensure a satellite radiation facility is established in the north west in the medium to long term. There is still significant demand among the people of the region for their own local services. A critical point in that regard is that we do not want services to be provided willy-nilly all over the place for their own sake. However, the people of the north west want a fair share of the pie and a transformation from the present situation whereby patients must spend hours travelling long distances to access basic essential services.
With respect to the more local dimension to medical services in the north west, in the past few days there has been an extremely serious blockage regarding general services at Letterkenny General Hospital. I ask that the Minister of State use his influence to expedite construction of the new wing and admissions unit there. We will have new modular facilities in January, but we must keep a very sharp focus on the short to medium term.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue and am seeking, first, clarification regarding the systems that will be employed and who will be allowed to use facilities in Belfast. Second, it is important to recall that the Minister stated in this House that Donegal patients will be facilitated in Belfast only after priority patients from the North have been cared for. That means that it is not a first-class, transparent system for the people of the north west. While we welcome it and congratulate those involved in fast-tracking it as part of the negotiating team, one must remember that there is not equal access for the people of Donegal. It is not an all-Ulster initiative or a primary accessible treatment facility for the people of Donegal. The only way to get around this problem is by the setting up of a standalone radiation treatment centre for the north west in the long term. We must keep a sharp focus on that objective.
I thank Senator McHugh for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I hope that I will be able to provide the clarification that he sought. If further information is required, I will do my best to get it for him.
Acute hospital services for Donegal are provided at the general hospitals in Letterkenny and Sligo. Donegal residents who were referred for radiotherapy services previously had to travel to Dublin.
In July 2005, the Government decided that the best option for improving geographic access to radiation oncology services for patients in the north west was to facilitate access to Belfast City Hospital, BCH, in the short term. Last autumn, the Minister agreed with the then Minister for Health in Northern Ireland, Mr. Sean Woodward MP, that the radiation oncology centre at BCH would provide treatment to patients from Donegal. A project board was established under the aegis of Co-operation and Working Together, CAWT, to deliver on the ministerial commitment. It includes representatives from BCH, Altnagelvin hospital, Letterkenny hospital, the Health Service Executive and the two Departments.
I am pleased to inform the House that a service level agreement has been reached for the referral of about 50 radiation oncology patients annually from Donegal to BCH. It has also been agreed that the number will be increased if there is sufficient demand from patients in Donegal. Patient pathways have been developed, and the Health Service Executive and BCH have agreed the basis for costing the service provided by BCH. Three assessment clinics will be held each month on an ongoing basis. The first referral clinic took place on 8 November and patients are being referred for treatment.
Under the agreement, patients who are considered by the consultant radiation oncologist at Letterkenny General Hospital to require radiotherapy will be offered the choice of being referred to BCH. I am advised that patients in south Donegal receive oncology services at Sligo General Hospital. Those patients will be referred as appropriate for radiation oncology services to University College Hospital, Galway, and St. Luke's Hospital, Dublin.
The service for patients accepted for radiotherapy by BCH will be delivered in accordance with the standards set out in agreed clinical and social care governance guidelines. Patients have the option of choosing the location that suits them best regarding travel time, transport arrangements and other personal or family circumstances. The HSE is also committed to supporting the travel needs of patients in Donegal referred to BCH.
This agreement reflects the significant commitment by the Government to developing North-South co-operation in health. On behalf of the Minister, I acknowledge the work of the hospitals, the CAWT and the respective Departments.
The Government is committed to making the full range of cancer services available and accessible to cancer patients throughout Ireland. There is considerable political, departmental and service commitment to delivering on the agreement. It is important, therefore, that the initiative succeeds, as it will support further co-operation in health care, including cancer care.
It is extremely important that we remain focused on the demands of the people in the north west, and not only those in Donegal. I speak of others straddling the Border, from Tyrone down to Fermanagh and back up to Derry. There is an urgent demand to ensure a north-west satellite radiation treatment centre. I acknowledge that this is a move forward and accept that there has been very positive co-operation between North and South. I also acknowledge that this is more than simply a relationship between the two Departments but something symbolically significant.
The point I wish to make is simple. Prior to the 2002 general election, a commitment was made, in writing, that a north-west satellite radiation treatment system would be put in place. I have been asking for such a service for almost four years but have yet to see any evidence that this commitment will be fulfilled.
I am sure the service level agreement to which I referred will be very much welcomed by Senator McHugh's constituents. I appreciate his interest in and knowledge of this issue. While we welcome the ongoing co-operation between people in the North and South, it is rather more difficult to achieve the same level of co-operation between politicians. Such co-operation is in its infancy. While we are appreciative of the support and co-operation we have received from Belfast City Hospital, we see such co-operative measures as a short-term expedient. Other solutions are being sought and will be found.