NHS England waiting times for cancer referral and treatment at record high


The numbers of cancer patients facing delays in seeing a specialist for the first time and starting their treatment have hit record highs in England, amid fears that overstretched NHS services can no longer provide prompt care.

The disclosure comes as a new row over how quickly hospitals can clear the record 6 million-strong NHS backlog has forced ministers to delay publication of the long-awaited plan to tackle it.

Half a million people in England with suspected cancer will have to wait longer than the supposed two-week maximum to see an oncologist this year, an analysis for the House of Commons library reveals.

The number of patients confirmed to have the disease who are unable to start treatment such as surgery or chemotherapy within the 31 or 62 days that hospitals try to guarantee is expected to exceed 75,000 for the first time.

Experts, who claim significant shortages in the NHS cancer workforce are to blame, fear delays in getting diagnosed and starting care could reduce a patient’s chances of survival. Cancer charities highlighted the “unimaginable distress and anxiety” they induce in patients.

“Cancer care is in crisis,” the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said. “As this new analysis shows, terrifyingly large numbers of people are waiting longer than they should to receive vital cancer care and treatment with the insecurity of not knowing.”

Streeting, who was treated for kidney cancer last year, asked the Commons library to analyse the NHS’s performance against the array of targets introduced 11 years ago that in theory guarantee patients speedy care.

The analysis found that between April and November last year 290,428 people with possible symptoms of cancer did not get to see a specialist within 14 days of being urgently referred by a GP. After seven months of the year that is already far higher than the previous highest number breaches of the target, the 235,549 recorded last year.

They include 91,896 people who may have breast cancer, 76,307 with suspected skin cancer and 47,936 who GPs believe may be suffering from lower gastro-intestinal cancer.

The total figure equates to 41,490 people a month. If that trend continues, as many as 497,877 people who have a lump, unexplained bleeding or other potential sign of the disease will have missed out on a first appointment by the time 2021-22 ends at the end of next month. If confirmed, it will represent an almost 11-fold rise on the 45,291 such cases seen a decade ago.

“These figures show the huge challenge the NHS faces in clearing the cancer backlog. This is a time of real worry and anxiety for people waiting for a cancer diagnosis, with any delay creating the risk of a worse prognosis”, said Minesh Patel, the head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support.

The analysis also shows that the proportion of women who GPs fear may have breast cancer who see an oncologist within two weeks has fallen to just 72.7% – the lowest since records began.

Source: The Guardian