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Cancer Waiting List Crisis Even Worse Than Figures Show

Patients are having to wait even longer for cancer diagnosis, results and treatment than the official figures show, despite the NHS already failing to hit its targets. Even though the importance of an early diagnosis is well-known, and in some cases can result in patients making a full recovery, the NHS has not been managing to achieve its diagnosis targets.

NHS keeps missing targets

As of December 2023, only 74.2 per cent of people in England were diagnosed with cancer or had the illness ruled out within 28 days of an urgent referral, which is below its target of 75 per cent. Since the introduction of the Faster Diagnosis Standard in October 2021, the goal has never been met. At the same time, it has a target for 85 per cent of patients to start their first treatment within 62 days of being diagnosed with cancer. However, only 65.9 per cent did so in December last year. The NHS also intends for 96 per cent of patients to begin treatment within 31 days of doctors deciding a plan of action, but just 91.1 per cent did so, according to the recent data.

True scale of the problem could be worse

While this is “unacceptable”, according to Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell, the true scale of the problem could be even worse. A recent BBC News investigation revealed that lots of patients that need ongoing care are not typically included on waiting list figures. In some cases, people have been removed from waiting lists before being able to start treatment. Patients who need further treatment should be added to waiting lists, but this often does not happen. Karen Hyde, a spokeswoman from Insource, which helps hospitals manage waiting lists, told the news provider: “The NHS does not incentivise hospitals to keep a close eye on these patients.” She added: “We know there are long waits for those on the waiting list. For those not on the official waiting list, it is likely to be even worse - but the figures are not published.” What’s more, if a patient is not ready for treatment or has refused it, they might be taken off the waiting list entirely instead of being put to the back of the queue. Therefore, their information could get lost in the system, and they may never receive the care they need. Minesh Patel, policy head at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the problem of people disappearing off waiting lists particularly affects people who receive ongoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, as well as those who need regular checks to see whether their cancer has returned. He stated: “NHS staff are doing all that they can - but with limited resources, it’s impossible for them to keep up.”

Lowers the risk of survival

For some cancer patients, the lack of urgency when it comes to being diagnosed or starting treatment could have fatal consequences. Just delaying surgery by four weeks could increase the chances of dying by between six and eight per cent, one study published in the British Medical Journal showed. Almost all breast cancer patients can survive longer than five years if diagnosed at the earliest stage, while just three in ten can outlive this if the cancer is detected at the latest stage. When it comes to lung cancer, 60 per cent of patients can live for more than five years after being diagnosed at the earliest stage, while this figure drops to ten per cent if it is found much later on. This demonstrates the importance of early diagnosis and prompt treatment, as it can make the difference between life and death for lots of patients. While lots of people may delay their own diagnosis, whether by ignoring symptoms or putting off seeing their doctor, the NHS also has a big role to play in making patients wait longer than they should for test results and starting treatment to cure or slow down the spread of the cancer.

Declining progress in cancer survival

Figures from a recent study that was commissioned by Cancer Research UK compound the huge problem of NHS waiting lists in England The findings revealed progress in cancer survival in Britain has fallen to a 50-year low, with the rate of improvement rising by just two per cent in 2018. This is compared with a surge of 24 per cent from 1971/72 to 2010/11. As nearly one in two people will get cancer during their lifetime, it is imperative that more research is done to progress cancer survival in the UK, as well as giving prompt diagnoses and treatments to improve patients’ long-term chances of surviving the illness.

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