More than 4,000 women in Northern Ireland are waiting for a breast screening appointment, according to new figures.
he backlog has been exacerbated by a pause in the Breast Screening Programme, which normally invites around 80,000 women every year for screening.
Routine mammograms are offered by the various health trusts to women between the ages of 50 and 70 every three years.
But after the programme was paused for four months between March and July last year, crucial appointments were pushed back.
By the end of November, at the current rate, there will be a backlog of 4,125 women waiting to be screened.
The figures were obtained through a Freedom of Information request to the Public Health Agency (PHA).
It revealed that the interval between invitations for screening is now 39 months because of the suspension of the programme and the implementation of social distancing and infection control regulations once it resumed.
This means appointments now take between eight to 10 minutes, rather than the pre-Covid average of six.
The interval period has fallen from 41 months in September 2020 — two months after the screening programme was restarted — suggesting that trusts are only beginning to catch up with the backlog.
A spokesperson for the PHA said work is “ongoing” to bring the interval period back to 36 months on a more sustainable basis. Waiting lists have led to increased pressure on NHS screening units, as Action Cancer has been drafted in to provide additional capacity.
Joanna Currie, Consultant Radiographer at Action Cancer, said demand for their screening services has been “unprecedented.”
She said: “By being creative and stretching our very limited resources as far as possible, for example by holding some evening and Saturday clinics, we are trying to manage the demand.
“Despite the measures taken we, however, still need women who are seeking a mammogram to book their appointment as far in advance as possible.”
Action Cancer have agreed to work alongside the NHS screening programme by providing an additional 2,000 breast screening appointments between now and March next year.
Susan Monahan (51) had her invitation delayed during the pandemic.
With a family history of breast cancer and having visited hospital in 2019, she was told she would receive her invitation for screening when she turned 50, and expected it to come “quite soon”.
“I left it for a few months and then I phoned my doctor who told me I was in the system, but it was just delayed because of Covid,” she said.
Susan said concern was always in the back of her mind, but she eventually received a mammogram in May — over a year after she thought she would be called.
Despite the backlog, more women in Northern Ireland are now coming forward for screening than pre-Covid.
Between April and June this year, the Breast Screening Programme invited 26,581 women for an appointment, screening 19,839 in total. This compares with figures for April to June 2019, when 19,125 women were invited and 14,667 were screened.
According to the PHA, this is because more women are being invited now than there were two years ago to bring the interval period back down to three years.
A spokesperson said: “We encourage women who have been invited for screening to see it as an important step in helping to look after their health and to attend for screening when invited.”