Over 380,000 cancer patients have faced delays since 2015, as NHS last met treatment time target over 8 years ago

13 June 2024, 07:00

A patient being treated for prostate cancer on the NHS
A patient being treated for prostate cancer on the NHS. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Over 380,000 cancer patients in the UK have faced delays to their treatment since 2015.

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Cancer Research looked at the figures for how many people were not treated within 62 days of being given an urgent cancer referral.

The study found that the last time the NHS met its key target of treating 85% of suspected cancer patients within 62 days was in December 2015. In March this year, the figure was just under 69%.

Meanwhile the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) said that delays to cancer treatment were becoming "routine" and pointed to a "staggering" lack of qualified specialists.

Cancer Research also said there were too few staff and a lack of diagnostic equipment.

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Chief executive of Cancer Research UK Michelle Mitchell said: "Each of these numbers is a friend, family member, and loved one who is facing unbearably long waits for their treatment to begin, causing stress and anxiety.

"The General Election must be a turning point for cancer. Nearly one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime and it affects every family in every community.

"Any incoming UK government must make tackling cancer waits a top priority, and pledge to meet all cancer waiting time targets by the end of the next parliament.

"To do this, all political parties should commit to a long-term, fully funded strategy to back cancer research across the UK and improve and reform cancer services in England, in order to provide our health service with much needed equipment and staff.

"Without this, cancer patients will not receive the level of care that they deserve."

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The RCR said demand "vastly outstrips" the capacity of the cancer workforce.

Amid the data, the typical age of consultants leaving the workforce has fallen, from 57 in 2021 to 54 in 2023. The RCR said one third of consultants leaving the workforce are under 45.

RCR president Dr Katharine Halliday said: "Today's reports reveal a stark reality: the crisis in the radiology and oncology workforce is jeopardising patients' health.

"Despite our dedication to providing the best possible care, severe workforce shortages are significantly hindering our efforts.

"We simply do not have enough doctors to manage the increasing number of patients safely, and this problem will only worsen as demand continues to rise and more doctors leave the NHS...

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"Action from the new government is essential. Time is critical. Doctors are working under extreme stress and are deeply concerned for their patients.

"We urge the new government to heed the advice of doctors and implement a forward-thinking strategy to recruit, train, and retain staff."

Mairaid McMahon, policy manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "The latest census from the Royal College of Radiologists once again highlights the significant shortages that remain within the cancer workforce.

"These shortages impact negatively on patient care, cause delays to diagnosis and treatment, and could potentially to lead to worsening outcomes for people with cancer."

Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey said: "Every day counts in the battle against cancer. But far too many patients are still waiting too long to start treatment after being diagnosed and cancer delays have soared to the worst levels on record.

"That's why the Liberal Democrats would introduce a legal guarantee for all cancer patients to start treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral."

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "Cancer survival rates continue to improve in the UK, with the disease being diagnosed at an earlier stage more often. But we know there is more to do.

"We have a clear plan to take bold action which is why we have opened 160 community diagnostic centres around the country which are delivering millions of scans, tests and checks and have committed to building 50 more sites, speeding up results to start treatment more quickly.

"We are also delivering record numbers of doctors and nurses through our long-term NHS workforce plan to ensure we have the workforce we need to diagnose, treat and cure patients with cancer now and in the future."

An NHS England spokesperson said that it is "vital" for people to come forward if they are concerned about cancer symptoms, adding: "The NHS is seeing and treating record numbers of people for cancer, with 30% more people being treated last year than in 2015/16 and almost three million people receiving potentially lifesaving cancer checks in the last 12 months."

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