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Survival rates for breast cancer patients treated at the country’s largest private hospital appear better than those for patients attending public hospitals, the findings of a new medical study show.

esearch by medical staff at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork found the difference in survival rates among its patients diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer compared with similar patients at the same stage of the disease across all hospitals in Ireland were of “statistical significance”.

The study said the superior outcomes were particularly marked among those with Stage 3 of the disease — when the cancer has spread from the breast to lymph nodes close to the breast.

Researchers from the hospital’s Department of Medical Oncology compared the medical records and five-year survival rates of patients diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer at the Bon Secours Hospital between 2010 and 2015 against all breast cancer patients with similar stages of the disease recorded on the National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) over a similar period.

The study, which is published by the Irish Journal of Medical Scienceexamined details of 514 patients with a median age of 60 who attended the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork over the period.

It found the combined survival rate for patients with stages one to three of the disease after five years was 97pc at the Bon Secours compared with 90.4pc across patients at all hospitals, including private patients treated in public hospitals.

At the more advanced but still early Stage 3 level, the difference was even more pronounced, with the survival rate nationally at 71.5pc but 89.5pc among patients in the Cork hospital.

“Our findings indicate a disparity in the equity of cancer survival between private healthcare and other treatment centres,” said one of the report’s main authors, Michael Killian.

However, he said further research was needed to interrogate the results and examine how various factors might differ between private and public healthcare.

The study suggests potential reasons for the disparity included differences in socio-economic status and the health-seeking behaviors of patients.

“Differences in extent or timelines of access to therapies may also contribute,” Mr Killian said.

Commenting on the results, Stephen McMahon, of the Irish Patients Association, said they demonstrated how there was “healthcare apartheid in Ireland”.

“If you can afford private healthcare costs, you get faster access to care based on your needs. It should be the same for public patients,” Mr McMahon said.

He claimed the Bon Secours study further underscored the need for the “urgent roll-out of Sláintecare” that would end the two-tier system in Irish healthcare.

The findings support similar research carried out by the NCRI in 2019, which indicated that survival from breast cancer was highest in private hospitals and slightly higher in designated cancer treatment hospitals compared with other public hospitals.

The NCRI found patients were more likely to receive interventions such as surgical treatment, radiotherapy and chemotherapy in private hospitals.

It suggested the explanation for the better survival rates was due to the appropriateness or quality of treatment.

Another study found similar better outcomes for the treatment of prostate cancer in private hospitals.

Researchers at the Bon Secours Hospital noted one earlier study had found patients were much more likely to engage with screening services for diseases such as breast and prostate cancer if they had private health insurance.

They acknowledged that the role of private health insurance in relation to diagnosis, treatment and survival is “somewhat controversial”.

“Patients without insurance are more likely to be from a lower socio-economic class, an independent risk factor for poor survival, and are less likely to participate in screening programs,” the study added.

However, Mr Killian noted that private health insurance is neither a requirement nor a specific advantage in relation to access to screening, which suggested other factors such as education and health-seeking behaviors might be at play.

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