Cancer waiting times: over two-thirds of NHS trusts in England failing on 2-week cancer referral target

There has been a big decline nationally in the proportion of patients being seen within two weeks over the past 10 years

More than two-thirds of NHS trusts in England are failing to meet a key target for seeing suspected cancerpatients within two weeks.

Patients given a referral for suspected cancer should wait no longer than two weeks to see a specialist, NHS rules state. Trusts are expected to hit this target for at least 93% of patients referred to them.

Charity Cancer Research UK said urgent action is needed to tackle the “really concerning” waits facing cancer patients from diagnosis to treatment – despite the best efforts of NHS staff.

NHS England data from December 2021 showed that out of 215,393 patients seen by a specialist with suspected cancer, 169,381 (78.6%) were seen within 14 days.

Out of 137 NHS hospital trusts, 98 (72%) did not see 93% of patients within two weeks in December.

There are 11 providers currently taking part in a pilot to test a new target, to get all patients a diagnosis within 28 days of referral rather than an initial appointment with a specialist within two weeks. They are not currently being held to the 93% within 28 days target as a result.

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When these are excluded, 90 out of 126 (71%) of the remaining trusts failed to meet the 93% target.

Patients of the Torbay and South Devon NHS Trust (which is taking part in the trial) are most likely to wait more than two weeks, with just 44.4% of those referred with suspected cancer seen within 14 days.

Following closely behind this was the Royal Marsden, with just 51.1% of patients seen within the two week period.

There has been a big decline nationally in the proportion of patients being seen within two weeks over the past 10 years –  with the drop predating the pandemic.

In 2010-11, 95.5% of patients were seen within the two week target.

A decade later, the performance dropped to 88.7% in 2020-21. In the first nine months of 2021-22, the proportion stands at 83.2%.

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The number of people being referred with suspected cancer more than doubled over this period of time.

Data for 2020-21 shows that 2,080,673 were referred to see a specialist, compared to 1,005,066 in 2010-11.

A spokesperson for the NHS said that cancer “remains a priority” for the health service.

The spokesperson added that “diagnosis and treatment numbers have been back at pre-pandemic levels since last March, with record numbers of urgent referrals over the last ten months”.

“NHS staff have gone over and above to support and care for patients, with more than 540,000 people having started treatment for cancer during the pandemic and 95% of those doing so within a month,” they continued. .

“It is important to emphasise that the NHS remains open and ready to care for you, so it’s vitally important that people experiencing cancer symptoms come forward and get checked.”

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Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “Waiting to find out whether you have cancer can be an anxious time, so it’s really concerning that so many people are waiting longer than 14 days for a specialist appointment.”

She added: “If you do have cancer this is just the first step on the road to being diagnosed and beginning treatment. A road that, despite the best efforts of NHS staff, is paved with unacceptably long waits.

“Urgent measures to tackle growing waits are needed now, but fundamentally the solution lies in ensuring the NHS has enough specialist cancer staff. This is why the Government must now release the long-awaited funding, promised last October, to address major staff shortages.

“Though it is a very difficult time for the NHS, this shouldn’t put you off seeking help if you’ve noticed something unusual or are worried that you might have cancer. It’s always better to be in the system than not.”