Concerning Delays in Urgent Cancer Treatment

23rd January 2019 Clinical Negligence

A diagnosis of cancer is one of the most worrying and difficult times of a person’s life. Access to timely and effective cancer services is crucial for patients when they are at their most vulnerable.

Unfortunately, recent data indicates the national standard for cancer patients to start treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral has been breached every quarter since 2014 (Pulse).

The NHS national target requires 85% of patients who are given an urgent referral for cancer to begin treatment within 62 days. However, in some areas of the country, less than half of patients started treatment within that recommended period.

The data showed 41,315 patients began treatment for cancer between July and September 2018 following an urgent referral but fewer patients began treatment when compared with the same period last year.

This is consistent with a general worsening of arranging treatment in urgent cancer patients from 2014 onwards. The NHS cancer target has been breached every month over the last three years save for one month.

In addition, the standard two-week urgent GP referral target for suspected cancer was also missed for the first time in 2018.

The delay in arranging treatment is a concern for patients waiting to receive treatment at one of the most difficult times in their lives. The delay could cause worsening of the condition and allow further symptoms to develop leading to additional treatment. This can lead to further pressure being placed on GP services which worsens the issue of over-stretched GP surgeries.

It is welcome that NHS England plans to begin performance managing trusts against a new 28-day faster diagnosis standard in April 2020. At present, there is no target in the NHS for the time to make a diagnosis and precious time can be lost from the time of the GP referral to the patient receiving a diagnosis following which treatment can begin. However, NHS England propose to lead a major overhaul of national cancer screening programmes as part of a renewed drive to improve care. Recommendations include assessing the screening policy and integrating screening programmes with other initiatives to promote early diagnosis of cancer.

Diagnosing cancers earlier will allow treatment to begin at an earlier stage which could improve survival rates and alleviate some of the concerns of patients waiting for treatment.


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Eddie Jones is a Partner and Head of Department located in Manchesterin our Clinical Negligence department

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