The NHS in England is set to announce a series of reforms to cancer treatment, aimed at improving the diagnostic process. This comes at a time when cancer waiting times continue to lag targets, reflecting a larger ongoing challenge within the NHS.
As part of the Government’s Health Week, they are rolling out a range of policies trying to take further strain off the NHS. These include more funding for AI diagnostic tools and putting inserts into tobacco products to encourage more smokers to quit.
The “Faster Diagnosis Standard” has been under consultation since last year, and an outcome is expected very soon. It is to be introduced to ensure patients who are referred for suspected cancer receive a timely diagnosis. The NHS said that the current two-week target sets no expectation of when patients should receive test results or have a confirmed diagnosis.
Under the new proposals, patients who have been urgently referred, have symptoms of breast cancer, or have been picked up through screening, should have cancer ruled out or receive a diagnosis within 28 days, dubbed the “Faster Diagnosis Standard” by the Government.
Patients who receive a cancer diagnosis will start treatment within nine weeks from the date of referral, dubbed a 62-day referral to treatment standard.
This comes as cancer waiting times are still well below targets set by the NHS. According to the latest figures, 59.2% of cancer patients in England had waited less than two months for their first treatment, after an urgent GP referral.
This was up slightly on the previous month, but still well below the target of 85% which was last met in 2015.
Director of evidence and implementation at Cancer Research UK, Naser Turabi said, “Despite the best efforts of NHS staff, it is incredibly worrying that cancer waiting times in England are once again amongst the worst on record. Although NHS strikes have added some pressure, today’s missed targets represent years of underinvestment by the UK Government and the concerning delays for tests and treatment that cancer patients face as a result.”
“But these unacceptable waits can be turned around with political leadership on cancer. To accelerate research, boost our cancer workforce, and diagnose more cancers earlier there must be long-term funding and a clear strategy from the UK Government. Without bold action, more people will miss out on lifesaving services.”
Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay told BBC Breakfast that the Government is asking clinicians whether the current targets are driving the right outcomes. But he says, “more cancer patients are being checked and treated.”
These new figures, from the month of June, highlight the growing pressures on the NHS as it experienced another record month for cancer checks with over 261,000 urgent referrals in June and a near-record number of people starting treatment for cancer (29,479).
Cause for concern?
Head of the Radiotherapy UK charity, Professor Pat Price said, “The performance against the current targets is shockingly bad and has been for many, many months now, deteriorating over years”.
“While we agree chasing too many targets can be disruptive and divert resources away from the main patient 62-day treatment target, poor performance is not as a result of how we are measuring it. The clear and simple truth is that we are not investing enough in cancer treatment capacity and getting the whole cancer pathway working.”
However, it is not all unwelcome news within the NHS. The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester said its experimental work into blood cancers such as myeloma is seeing vast majority of patients responding to treatment.
Currently, the trust has around 30 clinical trials in progress for blood cancer, including five for myeloma, a disease that develops from plasma cells in the bone marrow.
Consultant Haematologist at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Emma Searle said, “The results for this kind of trial – using drugs that enable the immune system to see and attack the myeloma – are incredibly impressive.”
In the face of persistently challenging cancer waiting times, the NHS in England is stepping forward with reforms. While the previous two-week target lacked specificity regarding test result delivery or confirmed diagnoses, the proposed changes signal a focused effort to improve patient outcomes.
However, the reality is that the system has been burdened by years of underinvestment and delays in tests and treatments, meaning that reforms to waiting times will not suffice, more investment is critical in the battle against cancer.