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New clinic improves access to lung cancer services

February 5, 2013

EDMONTON – Patients suspected of having lung cancer are being diagnosed sooner with the establishment of a Rapid Access Clinic at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

The clinic – part of Alberta Health Services’ Alberta Thoracic Oncology Program (ATOP) — opened in October and, in the ensuing three months, wait times from the first appointment at the clinic to diagnosis dropped from 66.5 days to 52 days, a 22 per cent improvement.

Patients are also seeing a specialist sooner following a referral from a primary care physician: 29 days in October compared to 23 days in December, a 20 per cent improvement.

“The sooner a patient comes to this clinic, the sooner we can reach a diagnosis and the faster we can start that treatment, which gives lung cancer patients the best chance of survival,” says Dr. Ken Stewart, medical co-lead of ATOP in Edmonton. “Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer in Alberta and reductions in wait times, especially significant ones like this, can only help us lower mortality rates.

“There’s still a lot of room for improvement but I’m heartened we’ve made significant gains in just three months and our wait times are continuing to trend in the right direction.”

Previously, individuals suspected of having lung cancer would receive multiple referrals to acquire diagnostic imaging and lab services, and to see an oncologist and other health providers.

Now these individuals can be referred to the Rapid Access Clinic, which offers many of these same services under one roof.

“The main goal is to streamline the decision-making process for diagnosis and treatment planning by setting up a single entry point for referral and review,” says Dr. Stewart. “This allows us to evaluate patients and move them along towards therapy much faster and more effectively than before.”

To further support patients and their families, the clinic has three nurse practitioners — registered nurses with advanced education credentials and nursing experience — who provide individualized care that addresses the physical and emotional toll of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“It’s amazing what a difference it makes to patient satisfaction knowing what’s next and knowing that someone’s looking after them,” says Dr. Stewart.

The Edmonton clinic, which also serves patients from northern and central Alberta, is based on a model used by a similar Rapid Access Clinic in Calgary, which has reduced wait times for lung cancer patients in southern Alberta.

Both clinics, and the ATOP program, represent some of the work being done by AHS’ Cancer Strategic Clinical Network (SCN) to help reshape cancer care in Alberta, improve patient journeys and outcomes, and standardize care delivery across the province. The Cancer SCN creates partnerships between clinicians, researchers, community partners, patients and AHS leaders to tackle multi-faceted problems in health care.

“The ATOP program is the first time a provincial approach to the evaluation and diagnosis of patients with a suspicion of lung cancer has been developed,” says Dr. Alain Tremblay, medical co-lead of ATOP in Calgary. “The program primarily aims to ensure that patients are seen not only rapidly, but by the most appropriate health care professional or specialist.”

This spring, construction begins on new interventional pulmonary medicine suites at both Rapid Access Clinics. These suites will allow many procedures to move from the operating room to dedicated diagnostic suites, creating more capacity for surgery and improved access for lung examination, biopsy and other diagnostic procedures.

In 2010, there were more than 1,800 new cases of lung cancer in Alberta and more than 1,400 deaths due to the disease. While lung cancer mortality rates are decreasing in men, they’re increasing in women. By 2015, 1,100 men and 1,150 women are expected be diagnosed with lung cancer across the province.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than 3.8 million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

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