NHS cancer referrals: More than 100,000 wait at least two weeks to be seen by specialist

Katie Forster
Women over 30 with an unexplained breast lump should be referred for an urgent breast clinic appointement within two weeks, guidelines say: Rex Features

More than 100,000 patients waited longer than two weeks to see a cancer specialist after being urgently referred by their GP last year, new figures show.

Two weeks is the maximum waiting time allowed by the NHS in England for cancer referrals, with hospitals and surgeries required to investigate and offer a list of alternative clinics if the target is exceeded.

Waiting longer than 14 days for tests leaves patients in an “appalling state of limbo”, Macmillan Cancer Support has said, while experts have warned failing to act quickly could risk lives if tumours are not spotted soon enough.

In 2016, 102,697 people did not see a consultant within two weeks of referral, according to analysis of NHS data by the House of Commons Library, reported The Guardian.

The Government says 93 per cent of patients should be seen by a specialist within two weeks.

Official statistics show this was met in 2015/6, with 94.3 per cent seen within the two-week standard – but down from 95.9 per cent in 2011/12.

The latest analysis, requested by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, found that around one in six NHS trusts, 25 out of 157, failed to meet the 93 per cent target.

Nine out of ten patients referred to hospital are not diagnosed with cancer.

However, waiting too long to see a specialist can lead to tumour growth and a rise in “anxiety experienced by patients and their relatives at this difficult time,” said the Royal College of Radiologists.

Cancer Research UK warned last month that another key waiting target for cancer patients – to start treatment 62 days after urgent GP referral – is now at the worst level on record.

NHS England aims for 85 per cent of patients to start treatment 62 days after referral, but this target has been missed annually for three years.

Figures for January show only 79.7 per cent of patients began treatment within this time, the worst performance since the target was introduced in 2009, warned the charity.

Jonathan Ashworth called the research results “a badge of shame for this Government”.

A Department of Health spokesperson told the newspaper that cancer survival rates were “actually now at a record high”.

“The NHS treated over 110,000 patients – 82% – within the target of 62 days last year, as the NHS rises to the challenge of an increase in urgent referrals for suspected cancer of over 90 per cent compared to 2009/10,” they added.