Wait times blamed on the Irish National Health System’s ‘overstretched’ services and ‘under-resourced’ commitment to cancer genetic testing done by medical laboratories

Histopathologists in the UK and anatomic pathologists in the US understand the important role predictive genetic testing can play in helping patients understand their risk for certain types of breast, bowel, and ovarian cancers. While timely access to cancer testing may be routine in the United States, a report out of Ireland reveals patients in that country’s government-run healthcare system may have to wait up to two years or more for genetic counseling and testing.

The report, titled, “The Unmet Need in Cancer Genetic Services:

Conducting an Environmental Scan of the Cancer Genetics Services in an Irish Context Underpinned by a Mixed Methods Approach,” was prepared for the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) by researchers at the University of College Cork (UCC). The researchers found that genetic services have been “starved of investment and resources,” leaving healthcare workers involved in cancer genetics and follow-on services “doing incredible work,” but “completely overstretched.”

UK Patients in Need of Genetic Services Are Switching from Public to Private Healthcare

While early access to genetic testing can provide opportunities for preventative treatments or earlier diagnosis of cancer, many patients in Ireland with a family history of cancer must wait months or years for genetic services. UCC Nursing Professor and Physiologist Josephine Hegarty, PhD, lead author of the ICS report, stated in a news release that “public cancer genetic services are overstretched. Waiting lists exist at every point on the pathway for people who need genetic services.”

She added, “Many patients spoken to seemed to abandon the waiting for overstretched public services in favor of paying for private testing and treatment.” 

While the ICS report’s survey sample size was small—154 patients, family members, or members of the public—the data revealed:

  • One in seven respondents waited 13-24 months and one in 27 waited over 24 months for counseling and testing appointments.
  • Many people had changed from the public health system to private healthcare to speed up access to genetic testing.
  • The cumulative waiting time from referral to counseling, testing, receipt of genetic test results, and onwards to screening, surveillance, or prophylactic treatments [aka, preventive healthcare] can be up to four years, which patients see as time lost in terms of cancer prevention and early intervention.

Barriers to Genetic Services Affect Treatment Decisions

A separate survey of 52 healthcare professionals highlighted barriers for accessing services with six in 10 respondents saying they are under-resourced and four in 10 concerned about access to follow-up surgery for patients deemed to be at high risk.

In the ICS news release, breast cancer patient Margaret Cuddigan said genetic testing was not available to her at diagnosis.

“In those 13 months waiting for a result, I went through chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiotherapy on my breast, only for a double mastectomy to be required once the BRCA mutation was known. Had I known this earlier, my course of treatment could have been very different,” Cuddigan said.

“I had to postpone a radiation treatment to go up to Dublin from Cork to do the genetic test, as it would have taken up to another 12 months in Cork, and then I waited over four months for the results. Once I received the news of the gene mutation, I had to navigate a path of risk-reducing surgeries,” she noted, adding, “I researched and sought out a surgeon myself.”

Long Waits for Genetic Testing Are Common in Single-Payer Healthcare

The waiting list for genetic cancer testing has long been an issue in Ireland. A 2017 article in the Irish Examiner, titled, “Woman Faces 18-month Wait for Vital Cancer Test,” brought to light the 18-month waiting time for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation testing for breast cancer. While the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the backlog of cancer treatment services, such issues are not new in single-payer healthcare systems.

Across the Irish Sea in Great Britain, some patients have experienced delays of six months before getting cancer test results. In “Shortage of Histopathologists in the United Kingdom Now Contributing to Record-Long Cancer-Treatment Waiting Times in England,” Dark Daily reported how prolonged wait times for cancer test results in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service are one disadvantage of a government-run, single-payer health system. With limited funds, frequently the government health program under invests in certain clinical services. It is not until several years later that the underinvestment reveals itself in the form of lengthy wait times.

Meanwhile, it is cancer patients and their families who pay the price for underinvestment because delays in their cancer test results then delay timely treatment decisions. This is particularly true when an immediate start of therapy for an aggressive form of cancer is imperative.

ICS Executive Director, Advocacy and External Relations, Rachel Morrogh, argues the solution is prioritizing cancer prevention within the Health Service Executive, which runs Ireland’s national healthcare system.

“The reality is the focus must be on urgent care, but we’re missing chances to keep people healthy (through genetic testing),” Morrogh told the Irish Independent. “We can prevent four in 10 cancers, but we have to prioritize prevention. There needs to be a significant investment and the expansion of capacity across all the follow-on services that someone with a genetic risk of cancer may need, focusing on the development of a dedicated and resourced pathway for them.

Irish Cancer Society’s Director of Advocacy and External Affairs Rachel Morrogh (above left with Donal Buggy, Director of Services, Delivery and Innovation at ICS) maintains that “Patients [in the Irish healthcare system] need a dedicated group of multi-disciplinary doctors following them so that they can be offered options and psycho-oncology support when they need it.” She added, “The government must now listen to patients and those working in our hospitals and provide more resourcing and staffing.” (Photo copyright: Irish Examiner.)

The ICS report found that limited access to timely genetically-guided health and oncology services is the result of multiple barriers to care.

“It is apparent from engaging directly with service users that waiting lists exist at every point on the pathway for people who need genetic [cancer testing] services,” the report states. “For those who may have a genetic risk of cancer, the wait times for access to [genetic cancer] testing alone (before counselling treatment, prophylactic surgery, etc.) can be up to two years. Barriers to accessing cancer genetic services include costs of tests, long processing time for referrals to tests, restrictive referral criteria, and difficulty in accessing information on cancer genetic services.”

In the forward she wrote for the ICS report, ICS Chief Executive Officer Averil Power said her organization would continue its push for improved access to genetic testing services. “Government needs to not only expand capacity for testing and counselling, but also ensure that the follow-on services that are needed by people diagnosed with a genetic risk of cancer are in place and can be accessed swiftly.”

The ICS report is another reminder to histopathologists in the UK—as well as anatomic pathologists in the US—that a single-payer healthcare system comes with its own flaws and access-to-care issues.

Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Some People Waiting Over a Year for Cancer Risk Tests: Report

The Unmet Need in Cancer Genetics Services: Conducting an Environmental Scan of the Cancer Genetics Services in an Irish Context Underpinned by a Mixed Methods Approach

People with Family History of Cancer Waiting Two Years for Genetic Testing, Study Finds

Woman Faces 18-Month Wait for Vital Cancer Test

Irish Cancer Society: €30m Needed for ‘Stretched’ Services

Shortage of Histopathologists in the United Kingdom Now Contributing to Record-Long Cancer-Treatment Waiting Times in England