Fears over cancer outcomes as waiting times lengthen

A leading charity has warned there are growing numbers of UK cancer patients which are failing to be diagnosed or treated within the agreed timeframes – and the figures could be the tip of the iceberg.

Cancer UK released data which found in the last 6 years, almost 55,000 cancer patients should have been diagnosed quicker or started their treatment sooner, putting their health and lives in danger.

The charity said the figures were due to the NHS in England having continued to miss its target to treat 85% of cancer patients within 2 months of their urgent suspected cancer referral. A target that exists to ensure that patients are seen, diagnosed and treated quickly.

It warned this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, as the figures only capture cancer patients who had an urgent suspected cancer referral. Those diagnosed through a different route – following a routine referral for example – are likely to have waited even longer.

Though several factors can influence how quickly someone is diagnosed or able to start treatment, the charity’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, explains that the impact of COVID-19 and years of workforce shortages and insufficient infrastructure have meant that cancer targets continue to be missed.

Cancer won’t wait and the time for the Government to fix these chronic issues is now,” said Mitchell.

The charity added the target of 85% has not been met since 2015, and worryingly, figures have been deteriorating year-on-year since 2017. Around 4,000 additional patients needed to be diagnosed and start treatment to hit the target in 2016. And the numbers are mounting – in July of this year, this figure was already around 11,600.

Mitchell has urged the Chancellor to use the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to provide multi-year investment for the NHS to train more staff and buy more diagnostic equipment, in order to meet waiting time targets, and put the UK on the path towards world-leading cancer survival.

“Despite working as hard as they can, NHS staff and services are constantly on the back foot, particularly as the number of people with cancer continues to grow,” she said.

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, added: “Being referred urgently because you might have cancer, receiving a diagnosis and beginning treatment for the disease are hugely anxious times for patients, which are further compounded when there are delays. For people with cancer, everyday counts; that is why we have cancer targets.”

He added that having worked for the NHS for a number of years, it has been hard to watch the continuous deterioration, as well as the anxiety and worsening outcomes this can cause patients.

Cancer survival in England has lagged behind comparable countries for years, and there is a real possibility that it could go backwards for the first time.

Echoing Mitchell’s call to the Chancellor, Swanton said: “The Government has to commit to long term investment in workforce and kit so that we can turn things around and give patients both the care and outcomes they deserve.”

The charity said the figures were due to the NHS in England having continued to miss its target to treat 85% of cancer patients within 2 months of their urgent suspected cancer referral. A target that exists to ensure that patients are seen, diagnosed and treated quickly.

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