Cancer test delays are putting lives at risk, experts warn

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

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Cancer patients’ chances of survival are being put at risk by growing delays in carrying out vital tests on them on the NHS, experts in the disease warn today.

New official figures show that the number of people waiting more than six weeks for an MRI or CT scan has doubled in a year and reached its highest level since 2008.

NHS England performance data also shows that the number of people being forced to wait beyond the supposed maximum time has shot up for every type of cancer test, which also includes endoscopy and ultrasound, under the coalition.

In April a total of 16,981 patients with suspected cancer had to wait more than six weeks for a test, the largest number since February 2008. That is up from the 7,788 seen in the same month last year and an almost five-fold jump since the 3,495 seen in April 2010, just before the last general election.

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Only two weeks ago we heard that more people are waiting longer to start treatment and now more people are waiting longer just to get diagnosed.”

Devane added: “Each individual hospital has a responsibility to meet these targets, or they risk putting a patient’s best chance of survival at risk.”

The breach of politically important key NHS targets – the NHS constitution says no patient should have to wait more than six weeks after their referral for a diagnostic test – has put ministers under pressure over how well the service is responding to rising demand for care while its finances are under unprecedented strain.

The row over lengthy delays for cancer tests comes after the NHS failed to meet its requirement to treat 98% of A&E patients within four hours and exceeded the 18-week deadline for treating people after their GP has referred them, and also the first-ever breach of the requirement that 85% of cancer patients should start receiving treatment within 62 days.

Sara Osborne, head of policy at Cancer Research UK, said: “These latest figures are extremely worrying and urgent action must be taken to make sure patients don’t have to wait too long to get their cancer diagnosed. The six-week waiting-time target is in place as we know a quick diagnosis of cancer and access to treatment is vital to improving survival from the disease.”

If a cancer patient is diagnosed late they may receive treatment later than would otherwise have been the case or require more invasive treatment than if it had been caught sooner. In some cases, it can reduce their chances of surviving or even make the difference between doctors being able to save them or not.

Britain has one of the worst records in Europe for late diagnosis of many cancers, which has prompted the government to fund multimillion-pound awareness campaigns to reduce late diagnosis of lung and bowel cancer by alerting the public to common symptoms.

Dr Giles Maskell, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, whose 3,000 members examine patients’ scan results, said it was “very concerned by these figures which reflect the extreme pressure on imaging services. These waiting times do not take account of delays in reporting, so the situation is even worse.”

Amid growing unease in Whitehall over the NHS, including predictions of a summer A&E crisis, the Department of Health last night confirmed it was giving the health service an emergency boost totalling £650m. Of that, £400m is to help A&E units cope with increased demand next winter and the other £250m will be spent on tackling the growing backlog of elective procedures, including 100,000 extra operations this summer. “David Cameron has lost control of what’s happening in the NHS. These panic measures are a sign of how low the NHS has sunk on his watch”, said Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary.

The Department of Health said: “The NHS is carrying out more tests than ever before and the number of people waiting more than six weeks is just over 2% of the total.

“But of course everyone should get timely care, and NHS England and others are looking hard at dips in local performance and taking steps to ensure that all patients get access to tests and treatment as quickly as possible. We have invested over £750m over four years to support early diagnosis in cancer and improve access to key diagnostics to make sure that everyone has access to the best possible treatment.”