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Early cancer diagnosis target slipping

NHS England is struggling to meet its bold target to improve cancer diagnosis as the proportion of cancer patients starting treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral falls from 87% to 70%.

MPs have warned the Government that the flagship target to catch three-quarters of cancer diagnoses at an early stage is failing to make significant progress. The ambitious target was set out in the NHS Long Term Plan published in 2019 – which looked to improve key public health issues facing the country. The UK currently sits behind comparable nations and healthcare systems such as Canada and Australia in cancer diagnosis and oncology. Improving the survival rates and treatment of cancer was therefore a key priority for the Conservative Government for healthcare and a ‘public health mission’ in the Life Sciences Vision.

Improving diagnosis so the majority of cancer patients are diagnosed as early as possible was a primary concern laid out in the Government white paper – aiming to reach the target of three quarters early diagnoses by 2028. However the Health and Social Care Committee has reported that the Government’s target has struggled to make any progress following the pandemic and significant staff shortages.

‘’We are extending the cancer call for evidence to inform our 10-year Cancer Plan to better understand why people are not coming forward, how we can improve early diagnosis to save more lives and we need to hear from you. We know disparities exist and I would encourage everyone to share their views on GOV.UK by Friday 8 April’’.

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid

In the last decade the proportion of cancer patients starting treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral has fallen from 87% to 70% in January 2022. Now Boris Johnson’s administration is faced with the potential of over 340,000 cancer patients being diagnosed late.

The reorientation of the NHS to tackle Covid-19 has pushed hopes of improving other public health issues to the side as the pandemic has taken precedence. The Government now faces the challenge of dealing with the rising NHS backlog whilst the service is under significant pressure with staff shortages are prevalent across the country.

Just recently the Independent Review of Maternity Services at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust found “catastrophic failures at the Trust may have led to the deaths of more than 200 babies, nine mothers and left other infants with life-changing injuries”. The conclusion drawn from the review found staff shortages to be a significant factor in the incident. Falling standards in recruitment and staffing have been evident for the last two decades with the pandemic placing further strain.

Final thought

The clear struggle of the Government and NHS England to meet their ambitious cancer diagnoses target represents just one crisis in a long list of public health issues facing the country. The disastrous impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the NHS and the delay of care and treatment has been felt harder in a backdrop of healthcare spending cuts and staffing shortages. The Government has the monumental challenge of clearing the backlog and redirecting the NHS to previous standards of care. However what is clear is the issues within staffing and recruitment will halt any progress towards this aim.

Photo Credit: Dr. Cecil Fox

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