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NHS cancer treatment wait statistics 'set to be worst on record'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/11/2018 Haroon Siddique
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The NHS is on course for its worst annual cancer waiting statistics on record, official figures suggest.

In eight out of nine published cancer targets, between April and September, the health service treated the lowest or joint lowest percentage of patients since the standards were introduced, according to official figures published on Thursday.

They show that with half the year gone, 133,843 cancer patients have not been treated within the relevant standards.

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The figure amounts to 77% of the number of patients treated outside the standard in the previous 12 months, and is greater than the total in each of the first three years that all nine standards – introduced in 2012-13 – were in operation.

Dr Fran Woodard, the executive director of policy and impact at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “These figures are further evidence of a worrying trend which demonstrates that the pressure on cancer services is truly beginning to bite. We must not forget that at the heart of these figures are thousands of cancer patients anxiously waiting for referral for diagnosis or to start treatment.

“It is imperative the government now seizes the once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the challenges facing the workforce in the NHS long-term plan. We cannot expect world-class cancer care for patients in the future without enough staff with the right skills to deliver it.”

From July to September, the percentage of patients who went into surgery within a month of a decision to treat fell to 93.5%, meaning 897 were not operated on within 31 days, the first quarter in which the 94% operational standard was not met.

Last month, 78.2% of patients started treatment within two months of being urgently referred by their GP with suspected cancer, against the target of 85%. This was the 33rd month in a row in which the target was breached. In the second quarter of the year, the percentage of people who started treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral was 78.6%.

Since the target was first breached in January 2014, more than 118,000 people have waited more than two months for treatment to start.

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Some cited staff shortages as the reason for the missed targets. Delyth Morgan, the chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “With the breast imaging and diagnostic workforce now at crisis capacity, we urgently need the government to invest £39m in recruitment and other initiatives to enable breast services to cope with increasing demand over the next 10 years.”

Tom Sandford, the England director of the Royal College of Nursing, said a £1bn investment in nursing education was needed. “Everywhere you look you see our healthcare system buckling under the strain,” he said. “Just last week, a leading cancer centre in Essex announced it may have to close as it cannot recruit enough specialist nurses.

“More patients are waiting over two months to start urgent cancer treatment than any time in the last three years – this is a further blow to patients and families enduring one of the most stressful times imaginable.”

The latest NHS figures also show there were 48,650 patients waiting at least four hours for a hospital bed after being admitted in an emergency last month, and of these, 212 were waiting at least 12 hours, more than three times the number a year ago. In October last year, 45,500 had “trolley waits” of at least four hours, and 57 waited at least 12 hours.

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The British Medical Association said the latest A&E figures “should ring alarm bells for the NHS and government as we approach winter”.

Rose Gray from Cancer Research UK said: “Surgery is a lifesaving treatment for many cancer patients, so it’s very worrying that some people with cancer are having to wait longer than they should. This again shows the significant pressures facing the health service.

“Delays in test results and treatment can be distressing for people with cancer and their loved ones. NHS England must make sure patients get the care they need, when they need it.”

An NHS England spokeswoman said: “Thanks to greater awareness, more people are coming forward for prostate cancer checks, the NHS is treating more patients than ever before, and NHS England recently announced an injection of £10m to treat the extra people coming forward.”

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