It is completely unacceptable to see so many hospitals across England failing to meet the guidelines with regards to how quickly patients are seen following an urgent GP referral.
There has been so much positive work done in recent years with regards to raising patient awareness of many cancers and the importance of seeing a doctor as soon as possible with any concerns or symptoms.
Yet, despite this, and despite cancer treatment being made one of the priorities in the 10-year plan for the NHS, 94 out of 131 cancer services in England failed to meet guidelines over the time to start treatment following an urgent referral from a GP in 2018-19.
In total, more than 32,000 patients waited longer than 62 days for treatment to start, according to research by the BBC.
How can our health service repeatedly send out messages to people around the need to see a doctor as soon as possible if they have any symptoms of cancer and then keep people waiting beyond guidelines to be seen by specialists?
There can be nothing more worrying than being urgently referred over a possible cancer scare. It is a hugely worrying time for the patient themselves, and of course their loved ones.
The outlook for every patient always depends in part on how early any cancer is found and delays of an extra few days are unlikely to have a major impact on a patient’s prognosis.
However, extended delays running into weeks and months – or of course cases where specialists miss the cancer or misdiagnose another cause of illness, meaning the cancer remains untreated and allowed to develop to a more advanced stage – can make a huge difference to a person’s chances of fighting the illness.
Early diagnosis importantly helps doctors identify what treatment will work best, as early stage cancer which is small and only in one area may need surgery while an advanced-stage cancer, which has spread to other parts of the body, may need chemotherapy.
If that crucial stage of treatment is missed, the consequences can be catastrophic.
Worst performing trusts named
Hospitals are meant to start treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral by a GP, in at least 85% of cases.
However, the BBC says 94 out of 131 cancer services in England failed to do that during 2018-19 – compared with 36 five years ago.
The worst performing hospital trusts, with the lowest percentage of patients being seen within the 62 days, are named by the BBC as Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells (60.8%), Royal Wolverhampton (62.8%), Weston Area Health (67%), Southend University Hospital (67%), Bradford Hospitals (67.1%), University College London Hospitals (68.4%), Mid Essex Hospitals Services (68.5%), Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals (69.2%), East and North Hertfordshire (69.2%), East Kent Hospitals (70.7%).
NHS England has pointed to a 15% increase in urgent referrals in the past year in defence of the worrying statistics, whilst rapid diagnostic centres are being piloted at 10 UK locations, targeting is a diagnosis or the all clear within 28-days for patients with suspected cancer.
Such developments are welcome and good progress, but it is clear from today’s report that progress is needed at a much quicker rate, particularly given the rise in referrals, if our health service is to avoid letting people down when they need speedy, specialist health care the most.