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MSP Edward Mountain wins apology from NHS Highland over cancer treatment delays

By Neil MacPhail

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Edward Mountain outside Raigmore Hospital.
Edward Mountain outside Raigmore Hospital.

More than 20 cancer patients had cancer chemotherapy treatment delayed during the summer due to the departure of the colorectal oncologist at Raigmore Hospital.

A Freedom of Information request by Edward Mountain, MSP for the Highlands and Islands, to NHS Highland revealed that 25 had colorectal cancer treatment delayed, and of that number seven had to wait one week.

The Conservative MSP put in the FOI request after hearing of "extensive delays" to colorectal cancer patients in the Highlands back in June as he wished to find out the full extent of the interruptions to lives of these patients.

The request has revealed the following there were 80 patients on the waiting list at the time of the departure of the colorectal oncologist.

Out of these patients, 25 had their planned consultant appointment delayed and seven patients had a delay of a week to their chemotherapy treatment.

Mr Mountain said: "Although NHS Highland refused to give any opinion on the adverse effect this may have had on the patients, they did however acknowledge that 'the patients suffered psychological stress caused by the uncertainty of the pause in their treatment and lack of clarity about when they would be seen.'"

He believes that the departure of the colorectal oncologist was incorrectly managed and as a result patients received less than optimal care.

He added: “I know from personal experience how delays to treatment can affect patients and we need to do much better.”

The NHS response said: "...it is clear that the patients suffered psychological stress caused by the uncertainty of the pause in their treatment and the lack of clarity about when they would be seen. We are very sorry for this and made every effort to minimise this by communicating with patients on a regular basis.

"They were also provided with a dedicated helpline to call in the event of specific clinical questions as well as contact details for Maggie’s Highland in order to access their specialist counselling services.

A total of 47 patients were seen by consultants employed by other Health

Boards. Those consultations were undertaken remotely with patients being seen by video in their own home or in the nearest NHS Highland premises. There was no additional cost to NHS Highland as the service was funded by the unspent salary of the departed oncologist.

An NHS Highland spokesperson added: "We absolutely recognise that waiting for an appointment or treatment is stressful, and apologise to all patients affected by the shortage of a colorectal oncologist earlier this year.

"From first receiving the resignation of our consultant colorectal oncologist we made every effort to recruit a permanent, temporary or locum replacement.

"Due to this being a temporary member of the team then we had four weeks' notice to develop a plan. There are national shortages of these specialists, which makes recruitment a challenge even when enhanced terms and conditions are offered.

"We proactively informed Scottish Government of the expected shortfall and worked with colleagues across the NHS Scotland Cancer Boards network and were ultimately able to ensure patients were seen or treated. We are very grateful for all colleagues that supported both within NHS Highland and across NHS Scotland in responding to this significant service challenge.

"We have now successfully recruited to the role with a locum. However, recruitment of specialist roles such as this will remain a challenge for NHS Highland and remote and rural boards, where we are reliant on single handed colleagues.

"We will continue to work with the NHS Scotland Cancer Board network to deliver access to service as required to support NHS Highland Cancer patients."

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