Suspected skin and breast cancer patients have seen the biggest increase in wait times of all those urgently referred to a cancer specialist, with one in 20 patients now facing the longest waits, according to analysis of NHS England data.
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 digestive tract, a Guardian analysis has found.
A total of 53,000 people in England have waited over two weeks to see a cancer specialist. This represents 22% of all patients referred urgently for an oncology appointment by their general practitioner.
Minesh Patel, policy manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said people were waiting “far too long for a life-saving diagnosis or treatment”. Patients “are concerned about the impact of these delays on their prognosis and the quality of care”.
“The NHS has never worked so hard,” said Matt Sample, policy manager at Cancer Research UK, but patients facing long waits “reflect a wider picture of some of the worst waits for testing and treatment. recorded”.
“When a few weeks are enough for certain cancers to progress, this is unacceptable.”
The proportion of patients facing the longest waits for an urgent cancer investigation is seven times higher than six years ago. Between May and July 2016, there was a monthly average of only 0.5% of people waiting more than four weeks compared to 3.8% during the same period in 2022.
But the situation has deteriorated the most for breast and skin cancer patients. In 2016, only 0.3% of patients suspected of having breast cancer and 0.6% of those with skin tumors faced the longest waits. This figure is 16 and eight times higher now, reaching 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 longer than 28 days to see a specialist, a one percentage point increase since 2016.
For Melanie Sturtevant, associate director of policy, evidence and influence at Breast Cancer Now, “such a significant increase” was deeply concerning.
“Breast cancer services are now receiving an incredibly high number of urgent breast referrals each month and, combined with the severe breast cancer workforce shortages that existed before Covid-19, this has resulted in an increase in waiting times despite the tireless efforts of NHS staff.”
Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust has the highest number of breast tumor patients in England, but the women seen there also face one of the longest waits. On average, between May and July this year, more than half of patients were seen by an oncologist after 28 days of an urgent referral from their GP.
Looking at all cancers, the trust also recorded the worst rate of patients waiting more than four weeks, with a monthly average of 22% of people 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 almost three-quarters of the 127 cancer care providers analyzed missing the two-week target – at least 93% of patients with suspected cancer are expected to be seen by a specialist within 14 days. following an urgent recommendation from their GP.
“Cancer must be a priority for this government,” Sample said. ” We are pleased [the health secretary] Thérèse Coffey has recommitted herself to a ten-year plan to fight cancer, but now we must take action.
“It means delivering a comprehensive, fully-funded cancer plan that transforms cancer services from global backwardness to global leadership.”
The plan “must include details of 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,” it said. patel. “We can’t wait any longer.”