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When it comes to cancer, most receive timely care

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When a patient gets diagnosed with cancer and told they need to have surgery, they are understandably anxious to have the operation as quickly as possible.

Happily, in Australia virtually every cancer patient booked in for potentially life-saving surgery undergoes the operation within 45 days.

Of almost 33,000 patients scheduled for surgery for malignant bowel, breast or lung cancer in Australia in 2012-13, 92 per cent were treated within 30 days and 97 per cent were operated on within 45 days, figures compiled by the National Health Performance Authority show.

But, while the vast majority got timely treatment, the NHPA report found that 1028 patients had to wait more than 45 days – including some whose surgery was delayed for than 75 days.

In findings intended to give clinicians and hospital administrators a guide to how they are performing relative to their peers, the NHPA examined how long patients had to wait for surgery on three different types of malignant cancer – of the bowel, the breast and the lung.

The importance of such treatment is underlined by the fact that, “without timely surgery, cancers may progress and patients with early-stage disease may face a reduced opportunity for care”.

Of the three disease types examined, those with breast cancer faced the shortest delay, with a median waiting time of 12 days at major metropolitan hospitals, and 14 days at regional facilities. By comparison, those with lung cancer faced a median waiting time of 13 days and those with bowel cancer had the longest median wait – 15 days at major metro hospitals and 16 days at their regional counterparts.

The longest delays for breast cancer surgery in the country were faced by patients Joondalup Health Campus, where it took longer than 45 days to complete 90 per cent of breast cancer surgeries.

When it came to lung cancer surgery, the NHPA report found patients in western Sydney faced the longest average wait. It took Liverpool Hospital more than 45 days to complete 90 per cent of scheduled lung cancer surgeries, and the hospital at Blacktown took more than 75 days to reach the same benchmark.

But bowel cancer patients faced the longest average delays. In all, seven hospitals nationwide took more than 45 days to complete at least 90 per cent of planned bowel cancer operations, and two – the Royal Hobart and Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra – took more than 75 days to reach this benchmark.

Interestingly, the study found no significant difference in performance between hospitals in metropolitan and regional areas, and a marginal improvement in performance from when the first report was conducted 2011-12.

The Authority said its report was not intended to pass judgement on how well or poorly individual hospitals performed.

“There is no agreed definition of poor performance in relation to waiting times for cancer surgery,” the NHPA said. “Therefore, the Authority makes no determination that any hospital is performing either well or poorly. Instead, the information…is intended to help clinicians, hospital managers and system managers see what I possible at similar hospitals and support sharing of successful strategies to manage surgery waiting lists.”