The NHS in England is experiencing its worst ever long-term slump in performance against key cancer waiting times, leaving thousands of patients waiting weeks for treatment for suspected cancers, according to new figures.
Fewer than 85 per cent of patients with a suspected cancer were referred within 62 days between April and June – the second quarterly target breach in a row.
The breach means that in the first half of 2014 nearly 10,000 patients in England had to wait more than two months for specialist treatment after being told by their GP that they had a suspected cancer – a huge rise of 27 per cent on the same period last year.
Labour said that the “agonising waits” were a clear signal that the NHS was struggling to cope with demand and warned that lives were being put at risk.
Overall 84.1 per cent of patients were seen within 62 days in the first quarter of 2014/15, according to new NHS England statistics. The previous quarter, when 84.4 per cent of patients were seen in time, was the NHS’ first quarterly breach of a target which is considered to be a key measure of the health service’s overall performance.
More people than ever are being diagnosed and treated for cancer. The number of patients who are being seen within the 62-day target has increased by 28 per cent in just five years. In the past year, there has also been a tenfold increase in the number of hospitals failing to see patients within two weeks.
The Department of Health and NHS England say that public awareness of cancer is growing thanks to charity awareness campaigns and even cancer-related storylines on Eastenders.
But while praising staff for referring and treating more patients, NHS England also admitted that pressures on waiting times were growing.
A taskforce consisting of the hospital watchdogs Monitor and the Trust Development Authority has been set up to address the target breaches.
However, Labour’s shadow Public Health minster Luciana Berger said that the NHS was heading “in the wrong direction”.
“David Cameron claimed his NHS reorganisation would improve cancer care. The reality is that he has in fact made it worse,” she said. “Families across England are facing longer, agonising waits for treatment and experts are warning that lives will be put at risk.”
The rise in cancer diagnoses is not surprising given the UK’s ageing and growing population, but the continued breaches of treatment targets have raised serious questions over the NHS’ ability to cope with the country’s burden of cancer, with existing resources.
The NHS in England is facing a £30bn budget deficit within the next five to six years, after the longest Government spending squeeze in the health service’s history. So far none of the political parties has committed to increased investment in the health service to ease pressures after the general election.
Mike Hobday, director of policy and research at Macmillan Cancer Support said that the latest breaches were “simply not good enough”.
“The current system simply isn’t working and people with cancer are being badly let down,” he said. “The Government has been very clear about its ambition to ensure cancer is diagnosed earlier and to improve the chances of surviving the disease across the country. However, these figures show that we’ve still got a long way to go. We have some of the poorest survival rates for cancer in Europe and Macmillan is calling on all the political parties to prioritise cancer ahead of the next general election.”
Sean Duffy, NHS England’s clinical director for cancer said that while the vast majority of patients were still being seen within a month, more needed to be done.
“It is imperative that we focus on maintaining waiting times standards as demand for care increases,” he said.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We expect the NHS to look urgently at any dips in local performance and take action to make sure all patients get access to cancer treatment as quickly as possible.”