- 105,000 people suspected of having disease had to wait more than a fortnight
- Quick diagnosis and treatment are vital as cancer can spread rapidly
- NHS statistics also reveal a worrying postcode lottery over care
The NHS is failing increasing numbers of patients who are being forced to wait beyond promised target times to find out whether they have cancer, official figures reveal.
Almost 105,000 people suspected of having the disease had to wait more than a fortnight to see a specialist in the year to April. This is more than double the 45,000 who had to wait as long in 2010-11, when the Conservatives came to power.
Under Government targets, those suspected of having cancer should be seen by a specialist within 14 days of an urgent referral by a GP.
The numbers having to wait more than four weeks – double the ‘maximum time’ – have also shot up, from 3,731 in 2010-11 to 9,467 in 2016-17.
Quick diagnosis and treatment are vital as cancer can spread rapidly with potentially fatal results. Cancer expert Professor Karol Sikora warned last night that the Health Service was struggling. ‘The NHS is operating beyond its capacity,’ he said. ‘It just can’t cope with the demand.’
Over the past seven years, the annual number of urgent GP referrals for suspected cancer has itself nearly doubled, from one million to 1.9 million. Prof Sikora, an oncologist and dean of medicine at the University of Buckingham, said the failure to diagnose early was the main reason why cancer survival rates were lower in Britain than comparable European countries.
‘Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt knows it, we all know it,’ he said. ‘If left, cancer spreads. Cancer that’s localised is mainly curable. But cancer that has spread outside the primary site is usually not curable.’
NHS statistics also reveal a worrying postcode lottery over care, with some hospital trusts much worse than others at seeing patients promptly.
Under Government targets, at least 93 per cent of patients who are urgently referred for suspected cancer must be seen by a specialist within the 14 days. But some hospitals are not even close to hitting this target.
During the past two years, only 76 per cent of suspected cancer patients were seen within a fortnight at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs three hospitals.
At Medway Maritime Hospital in Kent, the corresponding figure was 81 per cent. NHS trusts should also ensure that at least 85 per cent of cancer patients receive their ‘first definitive treatment’ within 62 days of an urgent GP referral.
But across England, the proportion treated within 62 days has fallen from 87 per cent in 2010-11 to 82 per cent in 2016-17. Some 6,417 patients waited more than 104 days for treatment to begin last year – up from 3,064 in 2010-11.
Prof Sikora said cancer patients too often faced a series of queues for tests and treatment.
‘Even if you get seen by a specialist inside two weeks, you then have to get into another queue for a CT scan, biopsy, or an endoscopy,’ he said. By contrast, France has dedicated diagnosis centres ‘where you go and it’s all done within a week’.
An NHS England spokesman said more than 500,000 people had been urgently referred for care by their GP compared with three years ago, adding: ‘We continue to meet the national standard for two-week waits, referring 450,000 more people in under 14 days.’
He said that there were also plans to expand capacity with a series of new rapid diagnostic and assessment centres across the country.