NHS Tayside has been forced to make a plea to other health boards to help shore up its ailing breast cancer service in the wake of a chemotherapy treatment scandal, it can be revealed.
Clinical teams in the region are currently in advanced discussions with officials from Glasgow and Edinburgh to provide clinic sessions for advanced breast cancer patients in Tayside.
The health board has also launched a “remobilisation plan”, which includes weekend clinics, to help turn around its waiting times, described as an “eternity” by a local MSP.
It comes after chief executive Grant Archibald told Holyrood’s public audit committee he is unable to guarantee the future of services in the region following the departure of several staff members from the oncology team.
Clinics are already being supported by a consultant oncologist from NHS Grampian, who has been seeing all new neo-adjuvant breast cancer chemotherapy patients in Tayside since September 2020, and the board will lose another consultant in mid-April.
NHS Tayside is currently meeting the national 31-day target for patients diagnosed with cancer to begin treatment and 62-day target for those referred with an urgent suspicion of cancer to begin treatment.
However, there are already longer average wait times for urgent and routine referrals from a GP, with urgent referrals waiting seven weeks and routine referrals waiting 17 weeks, against a national target of 12 weeks.
The health board’s oncology team was thrown into turmoil in early 2019 following the revelation that around 200 patients were given lower-than-standard doses of chemotherapy drugs in a bid to reduce harmful side effects.
A Scottish Government-commissioned review said the treatment resulted in a 1-2% increased risk of their cancer recurring but a series of investigations by us revealed one of the experts behind the claim later privately admitted it was “flawed, probably, but the best that could be done, really”.
Doctors in Tayside claimed the review was “deeply flawed”, reported being physically threatened following its publication and hit out at health bosses for throwing them “under the bus” over the reports.
North East MSP Jenny Marra, who is convener of the public audit committee, called on Nicola Sturgeon last month to step in and secure the future of breast cancer treatment in Dundee, and raised the issue again during first minister’s questions on Wednesday.
Ms Marra fears women in the region will not travel to Edinburgh or Aberdeen for breast cancer treatment and will “go untreated” if they cannot access services in Dundee.
In likely her last contribution to the parliament before she steps down as an MSP ahead of May’s Holyrood election, she said: “Breast cancer waiting times in Tayside are now 17 weeks from GP referral to first appointment.
“As the first minister knows, this is a severe breach of government recommended maximum waiting times and an eternity for patients.
“I asked the first minister about this a month ago. She said she would get more detail and come back to me. I’ve heard nothing.
“Women are worried and are waiting long times. Will the first minister now look into this today, please, and tell me what is being done before this parliament ends?”
Ms Sturgeon, who said last month she did not think it was “acceptable or appropriate for women in Tayside to have to travel long distances for essential breast cancer support and care”, said action is already being taken to address the issue.
“I know Jenny Marra’s stepping down from parliament but I will ask the health secretary to give more detail of this later today,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Both Glasgow and Edinburgh are providing assistance to Dundee to help with the waiting times there so that women are not waiting inordinate amounts of time for the breast cancer care that they need. This is a really important matter.
“Part of the remobilisation and recovery of the health service is making sure that any cancer care that has been delayed – and most cancer care will have proceeded as it should have done – that there is a catch up on that as quickly as possible.”
Several reviews concluded doctors in Tayside believed they were acting in the best interest of their patients by reducing the chemotherapy dose but found there was a lack of fully-informed consent around the practice.
Patients and families affected by the treatment have repeatedly called on health secretary Jeane Freeman and Nicola Sturgeon to meet with them and help them find clear answers over their care but to date not a single meeting has been arranged.
‘There will be additional clinics provided’
An NHS Tayside spokeswoman said both the current vacancy and the one becoming available in April 2021 “are for highly specialist roles and are being actively recruited to through national and international recruitment”.
She said the board’s commitment to Tayside “has always been – and remains – that we will do everything we can to provide this specialist service locally for Tayside patients”.
“We are pleased to say that a number of sessions have been secured from a consultant oncologist to deliver these locally in Tayside, with plans to deliver the remaining small number of clinical sessions progressing,” the spokeswoman said.
“Our patients should be assured that we will continue to do everything we can to recruit to these posts and provide breast oncology now and into the future.”
She added: “We have a remobilisation plan in place in which extra resources have been identified and there will be additional clinics provided, including at weekends, to improve the waiting times in the coming weeks.
“The plan will see the urgent and routine waiting times delivered within the national standard by the end of May 2021.”