Health

Over 380,000 cancer patients have faced 'routine' delays in starting treatment since 2015


More than 380,000 cancer patients have faced ‘untold suffering’ as a result of treatment delays over the past decade, a charity has warned.

Cancer Research UK said the failure to meet the 62-day waiting time to start cancer treatment is costing lives.

They said the General Election must be ‘a turning point for cancer’ or it could see decades of progress fighting the disease eroded.

It comes as a separate report from the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) said delays in cancer care have become ‘routine’.

Almost half of cancer centres reported weekly holdups giving treatment such as chemotherapy — despite evidence that every month of delay can raise the risk of death by 10 per cent.

More than 380,000 cancer patients have faced 'untold suffering' as a result of treatment delays over the past decade, a charity has warned (stock image)

More than 380,000 cancer patients have faced ‘untold suffering’ as a result of treatment delays over the past decade, a charity has warned (stock image)

The college described a ‘staggering’ 30 per cent shortfall in clinical radiologists and 15 per cent in clinical oncologists hindering timely care, with both projected to worsen in coming years.

Cancer Research UK analysed data on the number of patients starting treatment in England more than 62 days after being urgently referred for suspected cancer.

This key NHS target – where 85 per cent of people start treatment for their cancer within this timeframe – was last met in December 2015.

The proportion of patients in England waiting no longer than 62 days to receive their first cancer treatment in March was 68.7 per cent, with figures for April due later today.

Despite recent improvements, it blamed too few workers and a lack of diagnostic equipment, such as CT and MRI scanners for failing to keep up with demand.

Michelle Mitchell, Chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said some 2.2m people across the UK are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the next parliament.

Describing the added anxiety from delays, she said: ‘Each of these numbers is a friend, family member, and loved one who is facing unbearably long waits for their treatment to begin, causing stress and anxiety.

‘The General Election must be a turning point for cancer. Nearly one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime and it affects every family in every community.

‘Any incoming UK government must make tackling cancer waits a top priority, and pledge to meet all cancer waiting time targets by the end of the next parliament.’

The RCR reports were based on surveys of cancer centre heads and clinical directors of radiology departments in the UK, all of which replied.

Responses showed the number of cancer centres experiencing severe delays has almost doubled in a year from 28 to 47 per cent.

The situation is similar for radiotherapy, with weekly treatment delays nearly doubling from 22 per cent in 2022 to 43 per cent in 2023.

Nearly all (97 per cent) clinical directors surveyed said workforce shortages were causing backlogs and delays at their place of work, with demand ‘vastly outstripping’ capacity of the cancer workforce.

Dr Katharine Halliday, RCR president, said: ‘Today’s reports reveal a stark reality – the crisis in the radiology and oncology workforce is jeopardising patients’ health.

‘Despite our dedication to providing the best possible care, severe workforce shortages are significantly hindering our efforts.

‘We simply do not have enough doctors to manage the increasing number of patients safely, and this problem will only worsen as demand continues to rise and more doctors leave the NHS.’

The typical age of consultants leaving the workforce has fallen, from 57 in 2021 to 54 in 2023 with a third of consultants leaving the workforce aged below 45.

Dr Halliday said this was the result of doctors ‘working under extreme stress’ and urged the new government to implement a forward-thinking strategy to recruit, train, and retain staff.

Mairaid McMahon, policy manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: ‘The latest census from the Royal College of Radiologists once again highlights the significant shortages that remain within the cancer workforce.

‘These shortages impact negatively on patient care, cause delays to diagnosis and treatment, and could potentially to lead to worsening outcomes for people with cancer.’

The RCR reports were based on responses from all 60 UK cancer centres with radiotherapy services as well as every NHS acute trust or health board employing clinical radiologists, making it the most comprehensive snapshot of the cancer workforce in the UK.

Professor Pat Price, a leading oncologist and co-founder of the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, said: ‘These cancer stats tell a deadly story of delays to crucial cancer patient care. 

‘Whoever forms the new Government must acknowledge there is a crisis in cancer and take radical action to address it. 

And that action must include a new dedicated cancer plan, backed by investment in people and technology in crucial areas of cancer treatment, like radiotherapy.

‘Cancer patients not getting their treatment on time is a disaster that cannot be allowed to continue in the next parliament. 

‘Anything less than this and we will never get out of the cancer crisis.’

An NHS spokesperson said: ‘The NHS is seeing and treating record numbers of people for cancer, with 30 per cent more people being treated last year than in 2015/16 and almost 3 million people receiving potentially lifesaving cancer checks in the last 12 months — ensuring more people than ever before have been diagnosed at an early stage and cancer survival is at an all-time high. 

‘It is vital that people come forward if they are concerned about cancer symptoms. Getting checked early saves lives.’



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