On Friday, NSW Stateline documented the personal traumas of cancer patients attempting to access grossly inadequate radiotherapy services provided by NSW Health.
In NSW, only 36% of cancer patients receive radiotherapy — well short of the benchmark of 52%. In June this year, the NSW Auditor-General criticised the inability of NSW Health to provide enough treatment machines and recommended it develop a 10-year strategic plan for radiotherapy.
Although NSW Health now has a draft plan, it fails to substantively tackle the lack of access and equity for treatment.
But the rest of Australia is little better with the national radiotherapy treatment rate at 38%, largely unchanged since 1999 — varying from 43% in Victoria to 31% in Western Australia.
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How has this been allowed to happen? Well, it’s not due to a lack of reports or inquiries — in the 10 years from 1986 to 1996 more than 50 reports had been published — an average of five per year.
In 2002, former Senator Peter Baume in “A Vision for Radiotherapy In Australia” recommended the formation of a central body — Radiation Oncology Australia — for planning, quality and funding, and to overcome the fragmentation between different levels of government — sound familiar?
But after seven years, little has been achieved — still only 38% are being treated, but the number missing out has risen from 7400 in 1999 to 16,200 in 2008, and as a result 2500 premature deaths each year due to lack of radiotherapy.
In the last federal Budget, funding was announced for 10 regional cancer centres. But this will be to no avail if money is not allocated through a central body for radiotherapy — as occurs with chemotherapy through the PBS.
During the election campaign, Rudd committed to taking over health care from the states if they could not show they were able to improve service delivery within 12-18 months. In the case of radiotherapy services, the states have had years to address the problem.
It’s time Rudd took over so that all cancer patients in Australia have equitable access to this essential cancer treatment.