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'Scandalous' specialist shortage delays cancer treatment for dozens of NHS Highland patients

By Philip Murray

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Raigmore Hospital. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Raigmore Hospital. Picture: James Mackenzie.

A "SCANDALOUS" oncologist shortage at NHS Highland has been slammed after it emerged patients' cancer treatment was being delayed by the issue.

Scottish Labour has hit out at NHS Highland after dozens of patients had seen their cancer treatment "plunged into chaos".

Yesterday at First Ministers Questions Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar raised the case of Malcolm Graham, a 76-year-old in Lewis who was told his cancer treatment couldn’t begin due to the shortage.

NHS Highland has since revealed that 78 patients are now without a consultant oncologist and can expect “delay and disruption” to their treatment due to this acute workforce crisis.

Chemotherapy has been suspended for anyone not under the clinical supervision of a colorectal oncology consultant, and 13 patients currently waiting for chemotherapy will not be able to start treatment.

Scottish Labour said the health board are currently “unable to advise our patients of when their chemotherapy treatments will be offered”.

NHS Highland raised this issue with the Scottish Government in April, but Labour said the government only wrote to boards this month saying a solution should be developed – with no indication of when this will happen.

NHS Highland is understood to have already sought help from other centres in Scotland, but they are also affected by a shortage of oncologists.

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Scottish Labour health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, said: “This is a travesty for those affected and a national scandal.

“Cancer is Scotland’s biggest killer and swift treatment is key, but these patients are being left to deteriorate because of a workforce crisis the SNP let spiral out of control.

“This is the devastating reality of the SNP’s record – lives at risk and the very founding principles of our NHS under threat.

“The Scottish Government must act now and help NHS Highland through this crisis before patients pay the price.”

Scottish Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Rhoda Grant, added: “It is a disgrace that cancer patients in the Highlands and Islands have been so badly abandoned by the SNP.

“NHS Highland has clearly been sounding the alarm for months, but the SNP government doesn’t seem to grasp that this is a matter of life and death.

“The Scottish Government must show some leadership and work with NHS Highland to deal with this crisis and get these life-saving services running again.”

NHS Highland confirmed there is a shortage of oncologists and said it was "working hard" to resolve the problem.

An NHS Highland spokesperson said: "There is a national shortage of these specialists and we have not been able to find either permanent or locum cover. Unfortunately, this means that some patients will experience delays in accessing specialist treatment in Highland, and a small number of patients may have current treatment disrupted.

"We are contacting all patients affected to explain and apologise for this. We are sorry that this has happened and are working hard to find solutions as quickly as possible.

"NHS Highland has had offers of help from two other boards. Clinical and management colleagues are now working through these offers to understand how best to deploy the oncologist support.

"We have therefore made progress but will still need substantial additional input. We anticipate the other two cancer centres in Scotland will be in touch within the coming week once they have assessed their ability to provide support.

"There remains a national shortage of oncologists including locum workforce, further exacerbated by the sub-specialising which occurs within the discipline. Boards remain in active communication including within the National Oncology Co-ordination Group, and directly, board to board.

"NHS Scotland is working across the boards to find the clinical solutions which are needed. Further updates will follow next week."

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