The number of cancer checks carried out following urgent referral by a GP increased by almost a quarter of a million in 2018, according to NHS England.
The latest figures show that 2,171,527 referrals were made for a cancer check in 2018, compared with 1,922,266 in 2017. This equates to almost 6,000 a day, NHS England said.
Health chiefs are attributing the rise to a number of factors, including new GP guidance introduced in 2015, a lower threshold for cancer referrals, and greater awareness due to celebrities such as Bill Turnbull and Stephen Fry sharing their stories.
Rise in urological cancer checks
The NHS figures show the largest increase in the number of referrals was for suspected urological cancer, which rose 18.8%, from 192,131 referrals in 2017 to 228,313 in 2018.
The highest number of referrals was for suspected skin cancer, with 455,098 people referred for a check – an increase of 17.2% on 2017, when 388,145 referrals were made.
Both lung cancer and brain tumours saw a decrease in the number of referrals for a check, with referrals for suspected lung cancer falling by 1.8% and by 0.1% for brain tumours.
Long waits for treatment
The figures also show an increase in the number of people receiving treatment for cancer, with 308,058 receiving a first treatment in 2018, compared with 295,133 in 2017.
However, a report published by the Nuffield Trust earlier this year showed that patients are waiting longer than ever before to receive cancer treatment after a referral from their GP.
The report, which analysed NHS performance data, found that the 62-day national target for starting cancer treatment has not been met in over three years and in February 2019, almost one in four patients (23.9%) waited over two months to start their treatment.
The NHS long term plan pledged to accelerate access to cancer treatment and set a new target to increase the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages one and two by 2028, from approximately half – as is the case now – to three-quarters of cancer patients.
This is expected to be achieved through a major overhaul of cancer services, including the introduction of a new 28-day diagnosis standard, which aims to see patients diagnosed with cancer or given the all clear within four weeks, the plan states.
According to NHS England, achieving this target will mean that an additional 55,000 people each year will survive their cancer for at least five years after diagnosis.
NHS England national director for cancer Cally Palmer said the growing number of referrals was ‘encouraging’.
She added: ‘We want to see even more people seeking help when something is not right – catching cancer earlier when it can be treated best is crucial to providing peace of mind for patients and their families and saving more lives.
‘We are rapidly driving forward the NHS long term plan’s ambitions to improve dramatically the experience of millions of people across the country.’