Dáil Éireann - Volume 448 - 26 January, 1995
Adjournment Debate. - Cancer Treatment Equipment.
Ms F. Fitzgerald Ms F. Fitzgerald
Ms F. Fitzgerald: I wish to raise the important question of the conditions at present operating in St. Luke's Hospital, Rathgar. This hospital plays a critical role in our nation's services to patients who have cancer. In fact, the hospital provides radiotherapy to two-thirds of our nation's cancer patients. I understand that the three radiotherapy machines in the hospital's national centre for radiotherapy were shut down, due to technical problems, last week, leaving 120 patients without treatment. On frequent occasions since then, the machines have had to be used until midnight or very late at night.
I am pleased that the Minister, since taking office, has highlighted the need for a uniformly high standard of care and treatment for cancer patients to be provided throughout the country. This is important and will be reassuring news for many families. I ask the Minister to  outline what plans he has to ensure that patients are not subject to the unsatisfactory conditions, to which they have been subjected in relation to treatment, in St. Luke's Hospital, through no fault of the staff who have been working very hard and who deserve great credit for their ongoing commitment and hard work for their patients?
This crisis has been ongoing for some time and results in serious delays for patients in need of treatment. The shortage of equipment also means that machines are operating late at night with subsequent implications for patients who have to either travel home late at night or make arrangements for overnight accommodation. Clearly, this affects patients, their families and the morale of hospital staff. In the past it has been necessary to fly people to Cork to reduce the backlog of patients awaiting treatment.
I ask the Minister to outline his plans for the development and extension of the treatment facilities in St. Luke's Hospital, his plans to ensure appropriate treatment is available to patients who need it and his plans for improving facilities for cancer patients? What improvements in services can be made in order that cancer patients, who currently have to travel long distances, can have access to radiotherapy and chemotherapy in their own areas?
Minister for Health (Mr. Noonan, Limerick East) Michael Noonan
Minister for Health (Mr. Noonan, Limerick East): I thank Deputy Fitzgerald for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to explain to patients and their families who are concerned about the breakdown in machinery at St. Luke's Hospital what is happening and the plans being put in place for the next 12 months. Deputy Fitzgerald has also raised issues about the wider policy area of the treatment of cancer. I will be returning to that in due course but this evening I would like to confine my remarks to the situation at St. Luke's Hospital.
I draw the attention of the House to a package of major developments in the provision of cancer treatment at St.  Luke's Hospital. In November 1993 the board of St. Luke's and St. Anne's Hospital decided to consolidate services on one site. At the same time a joint project team comprising representatives of the hospital and officers of the Department of Health was appointed to plan for and oversee the transfer of cancer services at present provided on the St. Anne's Hospital site to the St. Luke's Hospital campus. The project team was also charged with the task of developing the St. Luke's site into a national centre of excellence in the treatment of cancer.
The project team worked quickly and completed a comprehensive development plan for St. Luke's which was approved by my Department on 5 September 1994. The development of the hospital will involve a complete upgrading of accommodation and equipment at a cost in excess of £9 million. This is a major capital investment and will greatly enhance the level of service for cancer patients.
One of the key areas examined by the project team was the medical equipment needs of the new hospital. In fact this area was treated as the first priority area requiring immediate action in the overall upgrading of facilities at St. Lukes's. Specifically in relation to radiotherapy equipment, approval issued in December last from my Department to St. Luke's to purchase a package of new radiotherapy equipment including two new linear accelerators and a simulator. The tendering process for the procurement of this new equipment is virtually complete and final discussions are taking place with the intended supplier to complete the purchasing arrangements. The overall cost of the new equipment is in the region of £3 million and it will become operational at the earliest possible date this year. It is not just a question of installing the new equipment, it has to be calibrated as well, but there will be no undue delay.
Pending the commissioning of the  new radiotherapy equipment a comprehensive maintenance service will be provided on the existing equipment by its supplier. This will include the full-time presence at St. Luke's of a specialist engineer. Lest there be any ambiguity, the maintenance service is not being provided by the contractor who supplied the equipment in the first instance; it is being supplied by the contractor who will supply the new equipment. It is a measure of how advanced the discussions are in the tendering process when an international company who will, I hope, supply the equipment is willing to put a specialist engineer on site to service the existing equipment so that no avoidable breakdown will occur before all the new equipment is installed.
In addition, St. Luke's is availing of a consultancy service in physics and recruiting a chief physicist for the hospital. This post has been advertised nationally and internationally. Physics is a highly mobile qualification. The physicist employed at St. Luke's was attracted to a private hospital and there is a vacancy there. While that vacancy is being filled in accordance with due process we have retained the services of international consultants who will provide the services which a physicist on site would normally provide. That arrangement is now in place.
I am aware that a particular difficulty arose on the evening of Wednesday, 18 January when, due to technical problems, three of the hospital's linear accelerators were temporarily out of commission. Immediate arrangements were made with an outside consultancy service in physics for an inspection of the equipment. As a consequence, two of the machines were returned to clinical use on Friday, 20 January and the third on Monday, 23 January. I should stress that emergency treatment continued to be provided for patients on alternative equipment at the hospital.
My Department has been advised by St. Luke's Hospital it is satisfied that the maintenance arrangements in place will ensure that the existing equipment  operates to full clinical efficiency, pending the commissioning of the new equipment, and that there will be no avoidable delay in the treatment of patients. I understand also that an independent professional assessment last week of the existing treatment equipment at St. Luke's by a UK based specialist indicated that the equipment is fit for use and is clinically efficient.
Dáil Éireann 448 Adjournment Debate. Cancer Treatment Equipment.