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Auckland Hospital cancer patients will be sent to New Zealand's first private radiation therapy clinic to avoid a waiting list blow-out.

Waiting times grew longer after an increase in November of patient referrals to the hospital's Auckland Cancer Centre for radiation therapy.

This coincided with one of the six therapy machines breaking down and another being decommissioned for replacement.

The waiting times have steadily improved since February, but the centre was last month predicting they would deteriorate when a machine was replaced late this year.

But it has subsequently negotiated with the private sector clinic Auckland Radiation Oncology - which is installing a new and more-advanced type of machine - to take a small number of patients. The deal is nearly sealed.

"ARO ... has agreed to support us by taking up to 50 patients a year," the Auckland Cancer Centre's general manager, Fionnagh Dougan, said yesterday. "That will particularly help us manage peaks and troughs."

The Health Ministry target is that all radiation therapy patients referred to the country's six cancer centres begin treatment within six weeks. This will shrink to four weeks in December.

The Auckland centre, which is run by the Auckland District Health Board and serves the Auckland and Northland regions, exceeded the target for 4 per cent of Auckland DHB referrals in the December quarter, 8 per cent Counties Manukau and 11 per cent from Waitemata.

Waitemata DHB reacted angrily on finding its patients' access was worst, and threatened to explore sending patients elsewhere.

Waitemata chairman Lester Levy said yesterday that the centre seemed to be moving in the right direction in addressing the underlying problems.

"I think there has been chronic under-investment in radiation oncology in the public sector and it's led to this."

Ms Dougan said the average waiting time had dropped to 3.7 weeks, the shortest in two years.

The public health system has struggled to meet the targets and clinical guidelines on waiting times for a decade. The Auckland centre was improving after its load was lessened by some patients going private.

One of the DHB's linear accelerator therapy machines is unreliable and plans for its replacement in December at a cost of about $4 million are close to approval.

Auckland Radiation Oncology spokesman Andrew Wong said the clinic's its third linear accelerator would be ready by October.