The latest NHS Cancer Waiting Times report makes grim reading. Only two of the six cancer report groups have “GP referral to seen” times that meet government targets. For all others, the target of 85% of patients seen within 62 days of referral is a country mile away.
The latest report won’t surprise anyone, other than perhaps the patients expecting express treatment themselves. The latest quarter’s figures, wrapping up the 2014/15 fiscal year, are a continuation of those that have gone before them.
This is the fifth quarter in succession that figures don’t come up to scratch. The gradual slide away from target waiting times seen across the NHS is raising alarm bells with Cancer Research UK.
Why missing targets is unacceptable
Early diagnosis is critical if cancer sufferers are to survive longer than five years after surgery. The charity has gone into detail to highlight the survival rates for early diagnosis compared to cancer being treated at a later stage.
The difference is incredible, making the impact of the missed NHS targets an even greater concern for sufferers and hospital staff. The delays also have a knock-on effect for support groups like Cancer Research and the Macmillan Nurses.
Thousands of cancer patients are being failed
Speaking for Cancer Research, Sara Hiom confirmed that the latest figures were the worst since the NHS began publishing this type of data.
In her role as director for early diagnosis, Sara is well positioned to make the call. She echoed what to those on the outside looking in seems like common sense, namely that when your GP refers you to the hospital suspecting cancer, you want urgent action.
The latest figures, for all but Breast and Skin cancer, don’t give potential sufferers the impression that their case is a high enough priority. That’s a bitter pill to swallow under the added pressure of knowing that your GP thinks you may have a life-threatening disease.
Can the NHS cope?
Sara Hiom concluded with a call for support for the NHS. With the new challenges, the individual trusts must have the resources at their disposal to cope with the rise in referrals.
Since 2009, when we first became privy to these reports, the number of suspected cancer patients referred to a hospital has risen dramatically.
According to Sean Duffy, the total number of referrals in the last year was in excess of 1.5M. That represents an increase of some 70% over that time period.
As national clinical director for Cancer, he’s in a better position to judge the situation than most. He’s well aware of the importance of ‘swift diagnosis’ and rightly points out that the NHS is helping to increase the survival rate for this dreadful disease.
What can the NHS do?
Again, as an outsider looking in, there are two key findings in the report that go unheralded that could perhaps serve as a template for those categories bringing the overall target down. They are the tremendous performances by the NHS in:
- seeing Breast and Skin cancer patients (95.9% and 95.4% respectively);
- treating patients referred by NHS sources.
Point 1 is exemplary and self-explanatory. But you have to check out section 1.4 of the NHS Annual Cancer Waiting Times Report to appreciate Point 2.
Following an NHS screening, 93.2% of patients received their first treatment in the 62-day period. And when NHS consultants upgraded cases, patients were treated within 62 days 89.9% of the time.
Whatever is holding back NHS performance in the other cancer groups, perhaps they could see what’s different about the procedure for treating Skin and Breast cancer. Likewise, the powers that be could rectify however it is the procedure for treating patients changes between the hospital making the diagnosis and the GP.
We’ve come a long way in treating cancer. And, as the advert says, for the first time more people are surviving it than those the disease is claiming.
That makes it an even crueller blow for those who now develop cancer. Although we now have the technology, the resources at the disposal of those who would diagnose and treat the disease are seemingly diminishing. As Sara Hiom implies, we must make reversing this trend a priority, with not a second to lose.