Health & Fitness: Two in five people cannot start cancer treatment until more than two months after urgent referral

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The number of people starting treatment for cancer within two months of an urgent referral from their GP has fallen to a record low, latest NHS England figures reveal.

The number of patients waiting more than 62 days to start treatment for breast cancer had been increasing, it is claimed (Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire) © Provided by The i The number of patients waiting more than 62 days to start treatment for breast cancer had been increasing, it is claimed (Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire)

Just three in five people (59.9 per cent) are now starting treatment within the 62-day target after an urgent referral, far below the target of 85 per cent.

A total of 229,093 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in June, down from 242,691 referrals in May. While that was also down slightly from 230,110 in June 2021, it was still above the 194,047 reported in the non-pandemic month of June 2019.

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The total number of people who have started cancer treatment in England since the start of the pandemic is still more than 30,000 lower than expected – a figure that has barely changed for months, suggesting little progress is being made in catching up with missing treatments, Macmillan Cancer Support said.

The head of Breast Cancer Now said the number of patients waiting more than 62 days to start treatment for breast cancer had been increasing.

Baroness Delyth Morgan said: “In 2020/21, almost a million fewer women in England were screened for breast cancer, and we estimate that (as of May 2022) almost 8,000 people in England are living with undiagnosed breast cancer largely due to screening disruption. The NHS Breast Screening Programme is vital in helping to detect breast cancer at the earliest possible stage when treatment is more likely to be successful.

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Separate official NHS data shows the number of people diagnosed with cancer in England still waiting to start treatment more than two months after their urgent referral hit almost 4,000 in early June, the second-highest number on record.

Latest analysis by Macmillan estimates the NHS in England would still need to work at 110 per cent capacity for just over a further 12 months to catch up on these missing cancer treatments. However, it has still not been possible for the health service to achieve this level of increased activity in any month in the past two years.

The proportion of patients in England seeing a specialist within two weeks in June was 78 per cent, down from 83 per cent in May, while 70 per cent of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days, down slightly from 71 per cent the previous month.

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The elective recovery plan sets a goal of 75 per cent of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer to be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days by March 2024.

Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Today’s data illustrates the huge strain the cancer care system is still under, with many people anxiously waiting far too long to receive results and start treatment that could improve their quality of care and save lives. It’s vital that amongst the recent confusion and chaos at Westminster, cancer doesn’t get side-lined once again.

“The future Prime Minister must prioritise the, now heavily delayed, 10-year cancer plan for England and ensure the NHS is provided with sufficient investment to provide the standard of care cancer patients deserve. Without this, people living with cancer will continue to pay the price.”

Some 6.73 million people are now waiting for non-urgent treatment on the NHS in England, the latest figures show. The Royal College of Surgeons has called for urgent allocation of the £1.5bn funding promised last autumn to establish surgical hubs in areas that are struggling to recover from the Covid backlog.

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Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has said the Tory leadership candidates need to address the crisis in the NHS and to stop “living in a dangerous fantasy world”.

He said: “These latest figures reflect the biggest crisis in the NHS’ history and what really concerns me is that within that 6.73 million backlog that the NHS now has will also be undiagnosed conditions like cancer that will often be detected during the diagnostic or screening or treatment process for other conditions.

“Given this is the biggest crisis in the NHS’ history, I find it extraordinary that the two candidates vying to be the next Conservative prime minister are living in a fantasy world where the NHS is barely getting a mention and when it does it is often through the prism of absurd gimmicks that fail to live up to the scale of the challenge.”

The Government and NHS has set out a plan to tackle the Covid backlog and recover NHS services. Other targets include making sure that three quarters of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer will be diagnosed, or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.

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