WAITS for breast cancer treatment are getting worse as the NHS battles to meet a key target to speed up access to care, new figures revealed yesterday.
In the period from July to September last year, only 81 per cent of patients urgently referred for treatment for breast cancer were treated within the Executive target of two months - down from 86 per cent in the previous quarter.
In some cases, patients were still waiting more than 200 days for treatment, with the longest wait being 291 days. Waits for all other cancers were either improving or staying the same.
Andy Kerr, the health minister, acknowledged that progress on breast cancer was not fast enough, and called on health boards to act.
The Executive target said that by the end of 2005 the maximum wait from urgent referral to treatment for all cancers should be two months. But approaching that date, the latest breast cancer figures showed wide variation between health board areas.
In Shetland only 33 per cent of patients with breast cancer were treated within two months of urgent referral. In the Grampian and Highland areas 50 per cent were seen within two months.
Other areas, including the Borders, achieved 100 per cent compliance with the target.
For all cancers, 75 per cent were treated in two months.
Lung cancer waits improved, with 77 per cent of people seen within two months compared with 70 per cent the previous quarter. The ovarian cancer figure was up from 86 per cent to 92 per cent.
Mr Kerr said the figures showed good progress being made, but the extra cash given to health boards to drive down waiting times was taking too long to have an effect.
"We have made significant funds available to boards to help them cut cancer waiting times. This is an extremely challenging target and progress in some areas is not as good as I would have hoped," he said.
Dr Sarah Rawlings, from the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said it was essential to understand why there were wide variations in waiting times. "Women want to receive their diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible and it is vital that if delays or cancellations occur, the reasons and implications are fully explained," she said.
Stuart Danskin, from the charity CancerBACUP Scotland, said it received many calls from patients desperately worried while waiting for treatment. "Patients need to know that the speed of their treatment does not depend on where they live."