Concern as Two-Thirds of NHS Cancer Waiting Time Targets Expected to be Scrapped

Published on 15 Aug 2023

When facing a cancer diagnosis, either suspected or confirmed, every hour feels like an eternity. You are constantly waiting for the next steps – to see a specialist, to receive your results, to start treatment. All of this waiting can leave you with a crippling sense of dread and it is easy to think about the worst-case scenario: is the cancer spreading whilst I am waiting?

One comfort is that the NHS has waiting time targets, which aim to ensure that those being referred for suspected cancer, waiting to receive a diagnosis, or waiting to start treatment are seen as quickly as possible.

However, under government proposals due this week, around two thirds of NHS cancer waiting time targets are set to be scrapped. Namely, the nine existing targets will be replaced with just three.

Under the new plans, it is expected that:

  • 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, also known as the Faster Diagnosis Standard;
  • Patients who receive a cancer diagnosis will start treatment within nine weeks from the date of referral. This will be dubbed a 62-day referral to treatment standard;
  • Cancer patients should receive their first treatment within a month of a decision to treat following diagnosis. The NHS calls this a 31-day decision to treatment standard.

The proposals come as NHS England figures published recently show that cancer waiting times remain below the targets set by the government and the health service. For example, the NHS Constitution standard sets out that more than 92% of patients on incomplete pathways should not wait for treatment for longer than 18 weeks from referral. However, the figures show that, at the end of June 2023, only 59.2% of patients waiting to start treatment were waiting up to 18 weeks, thus not meeting the 92% standard.

NHS England have said that the proposals have been put forward by leading cancer experts, and have the support of cancer charities and clinicians. They say that the changes will ‘remove the need for unnecessary outpatient appointments in order to comply with waiting times rules, allowing more patients to be referred 'straight to test' and the wider deployment of diagnostic technologies including artificial intelligence’.

Cancer Research UK has supported the proposals, stating that they should lead to diagnosis improvements.

However, there are concerns that the new proposals will mean that patients with suspected cancer may have to wait longer to get a diagnosis. Professor Pat Price, Oncologist and head of the Radiotherapy UK charity considers that the new potential targets are “ominous and deeply worrying”.

Professor Price says: “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"

At Lanyon Bowdler, we understand how devastating a cancer diagnosis can be, particularly if you suspect that you should have received an earlier diagnosis and treatment. Our award winning Clinical Negligence Team includes members of the Law Society’s Clinical Negligence Panel and AvMA panel members. The team has a wealth of experience of dealing with delay in diagnosis of cancer cases. If you have concerns regarding your own treatment, our team is happy to discuss the matter with you and guide you through the process sensitively.

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