Analysis

System is failing patients with longest waits for treatment since 2009

Cancer charities have warned that patients are being failed amid figures showing that a crucial waiting time target has suffered its worst breach since records began in 2009

Cancer charities have warned that patients are being failed amid figures showing that a crucial waiting time target has suffered its worst breach since records began in 2009.

Figures for 2014/15 in the English NHS show the 85% target to begin treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer was missed for the entire year, and for the last quarter of 2013/14. Between January and March 2015, 32,136 patients began first definitive treatment for cancer after an urgent GP referral, of whom 82.3% were treated within 62 days of referral, the worst figure since records began. Almost half – 75 – of providers missed the target.

The charity Macmillan Cancer Support also highlighted that during 2014/15 the target for patients to see a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral for suspected cancer was breached for five disease types for the first time in at least three years.

Warning sign

Macmillan director of policy and research Fran Woodard says the figures are ‘yet another warning sign that cancer in this country is not fixed’, and that lives are being put at risk.

‘The NHS is under pressure and there is an urgent need for a co-ordinated effort across the system to address these delays,’ she adds.

‘The Conservative party was clear about its ambition to improve cancer care and support in this country and Macmillan Cancer Support is now calling on the new government to set out how it will implement its commitments to cancer care and show that cancer remains a top priority in this parliament.’

Demand pressures

An ageing population fuelling demand at a time of straitened NHS finances is widely tipped to be among the main pressures affecting targets.

NHS England says that more than 1.5 million people were urgently referred to a specialist by their GP in 2014/15 – 71% more than in 2009/10. During the same period, the number of patients beginning treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer has increased by more than 32,000, or 34%. This is an increase of around 6% each year; the figure for 2014/15 was 4.1%. Last year alone, 19 million key diagnostic tests were carried out – representing a 33% increase over five years.

More than 1.5 million people were urgently referred to a specialist by their GP in 2014/15

Increase in referrals

Cancer Research UK policy manager Heather Walker says the rise in referrals could be because they were too low previously and services are now playing ‘catch up’: ‘I would actually see an increase in referrals – although it does put a strain on the system in general – as positive,’ she says.

Resources to match demand are vital, which is easier said than done at a time when the NHS is feeling acute financial strain. All eyes are on the cancer strategy for England, due out this summer, to point the waiting time target in the right direction.

Ms Walker says: ‘We would be really hopeful that it will address some of the issues around waiting time breaches, and the staff and equipment shortfalls that we have heard about for some time.’

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