UK trails other countries on waiting times for cancer treatment, study finds

Cancer patients in the UK wait up to seven weeks longer to begin radiotherapy or chemotherapy than people in comparable countries, research has revealed.

The stark findings are yet more damning evidence of the extent to which the UK lags behind other nations, as experts warn that people’s chances of survival are being affected by long waits for treatment.

In the first research of its kind, experts at University College London analysed data from more than 780,000 cancer patients diagnosed between 2012 and 2017 in four comparable countries: Australia, Canada, Norway and the UK. Eight cancer types were included: oesophageal, stomach, colon, rectal, liver, pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancer.

The two studies, published in the Lancet Oncology, were the first to examine treatment differences for eight cancer types in countries across three continents. UK patients experienced the longest waits for treatment, the research found.

The average time to start chemotherapy was 48 days in England, 57 in Northern Ireland, 58 in Wales and 65 in Scotland. The shortest time was 39 days in Norway.

In radiotherapy, the UK fared even worse. It took 53 days on average for treatment to begin in Northern Ireland, 63 in England, 79 in Scotland and 81 in Wales.

In Newfoundland, Canada, which had the best record, the average wait was 42 days. Compared with Newfoundland, waits for radiotherapy in Northern Ireland were 11 days longer. In England it was three weeks longer, and in Scotland and Wales it was seven weeks longer.

The research also found that in the UK, a lower proportion of people with cancer were given chemotherapy and radiotherapy than in other countries. Fifty-nine per cent of ovarian cancer patients in the UK received chemotherapy, compared with 67% in Canada, 72% in Norway and 73% in Australia. The same was true for pancreatic cancer patients: 27% in the UK, compared with 41% in Canada, 44% in Norway and 47% in Australia.

Older patients were the least likely to receive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, particularly in the UK. For example, 2% of UK patients aged 85 and over received chemotherapy, compared with 8% in Australia and 14% in Ontario.

Although not all patients need them, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are key treatment options. Countries with better cancer survival rates typically made greater use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and had shorter waits for treatment, the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership research found.

Cancer Research UK, which part-funded the two studies, said delays to begin treatment were partly a result of the UK government’s lack of long-term planning on cancer in recent years. Countries with robust cancer strategies backed by funding had seen better improvements in survival rates, it said.

The NHS workforce crisis was also a barrier to delivering treatment, the charity said. Michelle Mitchell, its chief executive, said: “When it comes to treating cancer, timing really matters. We can learn a great deal from other countries who have stepped up and substantially improved cancer services. With a general election on the horizon, the UK government has a real opportunity to buck the trends we see in this research and do better for people affected by cancer.”

Dr John Butler, a cancer surgeon and clinical lead for the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership, said: “Lower use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the UK could impact people’s chances of survival, especially for older patients.”

He said cancer survival in the UK remained about 10 to 15 years behind that in other countries. “This study captures missed opportunities for patients in the UK to receive life-prolonging treatment.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said it had invested significantly in cancer care since the period covered by the research, including £162m on radiotherapy equipment and £2.3bn on community diagnostic centres.

“Survival rates are also improving across almost all types of cancer,” a spokesperson added.


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