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Patients waiting over four months for cancer treatment double

Patients waiting over four months for cancer treatment double
By Beth Gault
22 April 2024

The number of patients waiting over four months to receive cancer treatment has more than doubled since 2020, according to an FOI by the Liberal Democrats.

Over 6,300 (6,334) patients waited over 124 days, or four months, for treatment last year, compared to 2,922 patients in 2020. A total of 15,971 patients have waited this long since 2020, the investigation found.

Over 1,100 patients were also waiting more than six months to receive treatment.

The current target time for NHS cancer treatment following urgent referral is 62 days, or two months. The NHS aims for 85% of people to meet this standard, but was expecting to achieve 70% by March 2024. This ambition was then extended to 70% by March 2025 in the recent priorities and operational planning guidance for 2024/25.

Earlier this year, Cancer Research UK suggested that only 63.9% of people in England received their diagnosis and started their first treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral in February 2024.

However, the charity noted that due to the update to cancer waiting times standard in October 2023, more types of referral have been included in the 62 day standard, meaning that it now applies to more people than it did before October.

In response to the FOI, data was submitted for 69 out of 137 acute health trusts in the UK.

Last week (15 April) NHS England reported over 3 million (3,035,698) urgent cancer referrals from March 2023 – February 2024, which compares to 1,335,350 in the same period 10 years ago (March 2013 – Feb 2014).

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer said:‘Despite a challenging year for the NHS as everyone worked to recover services, record numbers of people were referred by hardworking GPs for vital checks, with over three million referrals over the last year – this means more people are coming forward when they have worrying signs and symptoms.

‘Cancer caught early gives people a much better chance of successful treatment – this is why we have a huge focus on finding new ways to reach people in their communities – from lung trucks and liver vans to community diagnostic centres.

‘Every year we are seeing new treatments and technology coming through for patients, so while I know that coming forward isn’t always easy and people worry about the outcome, I’d really encourage anyone who has a symptom that might be cancer to get checked without delay.’

Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey MP said: ‘Cancer patients are being woefully let down by years of neglect under this Conservative government with targets being routinely missed.’

Responding to the FOI figures, Rory Deighton, director of the NHS Confederation’s acute network, said: ‘Health leaders and their teams are doing all they can to recover cancer service performance. The fact that NHS cancer checks have more than doubled in the last decade and more cancers are being caught at stages one and two when they are easier to treat is testament to their hard work and planning.

‘Yet it is very worrying to see that some patients are still waiting far too long to begin treatment following an urgent referral. 

‘While the pandemic led to thousands of cancer treatments being cancelled or delayed, a decade of underinvestment and recent workforce shortages have also created bottlenecks for cancer patients. The roll out of rapid diagnostics has been very successful in diagnosing cancers quicker, but there is a risk that this creates more patients waiting for treatment than can currently be seen.

‘Our members also welcome public health measures to tackle smoking and obesity – including the proposed smoking ban – which will help reduce the prevalence of some of the most common cancers.’

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