NHS cancelled hundreds of cancer procedures during winter crisis, investigation finds

Delays could mean patients' disease progresses and 'lower chances of survival', charity warns

Trusts cancelled similar numbers of operations and diagnositic procedures
Trusts cancelled similar numbers of operations and diagnositic procedures

Hundreds of cancer patients may have had their chances of survival reduced after hospitals cancelled operations and tests to cope with the NHS winter crisis, an investigation has found.

Hospital chiefs saying they had “no other option” to manage demand after it emerged that more than 500 operations and tests were called off across 43 acute trusts in England between December and February.

Macmillan Cancer Support warned it could mean that the disease progressed in patients and the window for successful treatment shrunk.

NHS trusts were told to put non-urgent care on hold in December and January in an unprecedented move by the National Emergency Preparedness Panel to guarantee capacity for the frontline in the worst winter on record.

However, they were explicitly told that cancer treatment, where delays can seriously harm survival rates, should not be rescheduled.

Information from 81 acute trusts obtained for an investigation by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), revealed more than half said they cancelled at least one operation.

Across those 43 trusts, 530 procedures were cancelled, HSJ found. These figure includes treatment operations and diagnostic procedures such as biopsies, to see if a cancer is benign,

Around a third of trusts did not provide information in response to the journal's request, so the total number of cancellations could be higher.

Larger trusts had more rescheduled appointments, for example Leeds Teaching Hospitals had 109 cancer cancellations, the investigation found.

The trust's chief medical officer, Yverte Oade, said the winter had included periods of very high demand.

“We regret that we had no option other than to reschedule a small number of cancer operations during a period of extreme pressure on our services," she said.

“Slightly more than one per cent of our cancer treatment operations and around the same percentage of diagnostic procedures were cancelled.”

Charities said the delays were unacceptable and that “ultimately it is down to the government” to ensure trusts have the funding and staff to cope with winter.

Macmillan Cancer Support’s executive director of policy and impact Fran Woodard told HSJ: “Depending on the type of operation, a delay could mean that the cancer not only progresses in that time but that the chances of survival are also affected.”

An NHS England spokeswoman said: “Despite all the pressures from flu and norovirus, NHS hospitals treated 2,615 more cancer patients this January than last January – that’s 5.7 per cent up.

“What’s more, the proportion of cancer patients fast-tracked for treatment within 62 days was the highest this January that it has been for the past three years.”

It came as former Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and that cuts to the NHS under the coalition may have delayed his treatment.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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