Patients with suspected skin and breast cancer have seen the largest increase in wait times of all those referred urgently to a cancer specialist, with one in 20 patients now facing the longest waits, analysis shows from NHS data for England.
Almost 10,000 patients referred by a GP to a cancer specialist had to wait more than 28 days, double the supposed maximum waiting time of 14 days, in July. Three-quarters of them were suspected of having cancer of the skin, breast or lower gastrointestinal tract, an analysis by The Guardian revealed.
In all, 53,000 people in England waited more than two weeks to see a cancer specialist. That’s 22% of all patients referred urgently for a cancer appointment by their GPs.
Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said people were waiting “too long for a vital diagnosis or treatment”. Patients “are concerned about the impact of these delays on their prognosis and quality of care.”
“The NHS has never worked harder,” said Matt Sample, policy manager at Cancer Research UK, but patients facing long waits “reflect a bigger picture of some of the worst waiting for tests and treatments on record.”
“When just a matter of weeks can be enough for some types of cancer to progress, this is unacceptable.”
The proportion of patients facing the longest waits for urgent cancer investigation is seven times higher than the rate recorded six years ago. Between May and July 2016, there was a monthly average of just 0.5% of people waiting more than four weeks compared to 3.8% during the same period in 2022.
But the situation has deteriorated further for breast and skin cancer patients. In 2016, only 0.3% of patients with suspected breast cancer and 0.6% of those with skin tumors waited the longest. That figure is 16 and eight times higher now, rising to a monthly average of 5% of patients between May and July 2022.
In contrast, only 1.3% of people with suspected testicular, brain and blood tumors wait more than 28 days to see a specialist, an increase of one percentage point since 2016.
For Melanie Sturtevant, associate director for policy, evidence and influence at Breast Cancer Now, “such a large increase” was deeply troubling.
“Breast cancer services now receive an incredibly high number of urgent breast referrals each month and, combined with the severe breast cancer workforce shortage that existed prior to COVID-19, this has resulted in ever-increasing wait times despite the tireless efforts of NHS staff”.
Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust has the largest number of breast tumor patients in England, but women cared for there also face some of the longest waits. On average, between May and July of this year, more than half of patients were seen by an oncologist after 28 days of an urgent referral from their GPs.
Looking at all types of cancer, the trust also recorded the worst rate of patients waiting longer than four weeks, with a monthly average of 22% of those with suspected cancer seen by a specialist after four weeks between May and July this year.
A spokesperson for the trust said there had been an increase in demand above pre-pandemic levels, but “our teams continue to work extremely hard to improve our overall cancer performance and achieve the two-week wait for urgent cancer referrals.” ”.
The picture is similar in many parts of the country, with nearly three-quarters of the 127 cancer care providers surveyed missing the two-week goal: at least 93% of suspected cancer patients should be seen by a specialist within 14 days. an urgent referral from their GPs.
“Cancer should be a priority for this government,” Sample said. “They were satisfied [the health secretary] Thérèse Coffey has recommended a 10-year Cancer Plan, but now we need to see action.
“That means offering a fully funded, comprehensive cancer plan that transforms cancer services from laggards to world leaders.”
The plan “must include details on how the government will train and retain more cancer professionals, so that all people with cancer receive the timely, quality care they need and deserve,” Patel said. “We can not wait any longer”.