NHS to scrap two-thirds of cancer targets in bid to speed up diagnosis and save lives

14 August 2023, 06:01

Patients should get a diagnosis or the all-clear within four weeks of seeing a GP under new NHS cancer targets
Patients should get a diagnosis or the all-clear within four weeks of seeing a GP under new NHS cancer targets. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The NHS is changing a key cancer target in an effort to give patients faster diagnoses and cut the number of people dying from the disease.

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The health service is to get rid of a target for patients to have a specialist appointment within two weeks of being referred by their GP.

Instead, patients should now get a diagnosis, or the all-clear, within 28 days of the referral, under the new "faster diagnosis standard".

The current two-week wait target is just to see the specialist and does not give any expectation of when test results are due, according to the NHS.

The health service is likely to cutting the number of cancer targets from nine to three, following a consultation.

Cancer Research UK said that the new targets should lead to improvements in diagnosis.

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The outcome of the consultation is expected to be announced within days. Health Secretary Steve Barclay will have final approval.

But Oncologist Pat Price, the head of the Radiotherapy UK charity, said she was "deeply worried" because "the clear and simple truth is that we are not investing enough in cancer treatment capacity".

Under the new NHS proposals:

  • Patients who have been urgently referred, have symptoms of breast cancer, or have been picked up through screening, should have cancer ruled out or receive a diagnosis within 28 days, also known as the Faster Diagnosis Standard.
  • Patients who receive a cancer diagnosis will start treatment within nine weeks from the date of referral, dubbed a 62-day referral to treatment standard.
  • Cancer patients should receive their first treatment within a month of a decision to treat following diagnosis, which the NHS calls a 31-day decision to treatment standard.

The NHS said that the plan would help diagnose more cancers earlier and save more lives.

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The health service currently has nine cancer performance targets across three broad areas, including: the two-week wait between a GP referral and first consultant appointment; a one-month wait for care once a decision has been made to offer treatment for cancer such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery; and a two-month wait from the urgent GP referral to a first treatment of cancer.

The NHS is supposed to meet a certain threshold for each target, for instance at least 85% of patients should start a first treatment for cancer within two months (62 days) of an urgent GP referral when cancer has been suspected.

But many of these targets have not been met for some time.

Under the new proposals, the Faster Diagnosis Standard will have an "initial performance threshold of 75%", meaning that three-quarters of patients should have a diagnosis within a month.

When the consultation was launched, Cancer Research said that it would like to see a 95% target in the future.

The number of patients waiting for treatment in England rose from 7.47 million in May to 7.57 million in June, despite Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's stated commitment to cutting NHS waiting lists.

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