Treatment delays leave UK amid cancer emergency, doctors warn

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Britain faces a cancer emergency due to delays in treatment, doctors have warned, saying the backlog of care needs as urgent attention as the search for a Covid vaccine.

NHS data shows that just 60.3% of the 14,425 cancer patients referred urgently by their GP in October waited less than two months to start treatment. This was the second worst performance on record and some way below the 85% target.

Doctors from Imperial College London, King’s College Institute of Cancer Policy, Radiotherapy UK and Check4Cancer said delays in treating cancer patients must be addressed now, adding: ‘The British public and the NHS should not tolerate the normalization of delayed cancer treatments”.

Writing in the Lancet Oncology journal, they pointed to a ‘survival gap’ compared to many other countries, adding: ‘While all NHS backlogs are important, the cancer backlog is the most time sensitive and the deadliest.

“The NHS and frontline staff need the same urgency and leadership, combined with the authority to work through obstructive red tape, that has been given to the Covid-19 vaccine task force.”

Related: Navigating the NHS: How patients are affected by delays

Doctors said that, when it comes to treating cancer, a four-week delay in treatment “increases mortality by between 6% and 13% for solid tumours, with further increases if the delay is longer… The complex cancer pathways were fragile and failing in the UK before they collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The 2021 All-Party Joint Parliamentary Group Cancer Summit Report highlighted multiple causes for their failure, including a deteriorating workforce crisis, a lack of short- and long-term planning to address the strength shortage work, insufficient diagnostics [radiology and pathology] and processing capacity and an outdated IT infrastructure.

A new NHS workforce plan is expected to ‘lead to major improvements in cancer care’, but ‘short-term action is needed to save lives now’.

They added: “To improve cancer survival immediately, the UK needs to deliver cancer treatment within the recommended time frame. No research breakthroughs are needed, just an effective and efficient pathway to diagnose and treat patients with cancer. To achieve this, the NHS must retain staff and “give them the tools and support they need to do their job”.

The team called for major investment in radiotherapy, as it is in danger of collapsing, despite being needed by at least 53% of UK cancer patients.

Oncologist and founder of the CatchUpWithCancer campaign, Professor Pat Price, one of the report’s authors, said: ‘This is a watershed moment for UK cancer services – the biggest cancer crisis ever – we cannot accept the normalization of waiting for cancer treatment by record times.

“Doctors know that this doesn’t have to be the case and that we don’t need groundbreaking new research to avert disaster. We need a radical new plan, investment in capacity solutions in treatments like radiation therapy, and the political will to cure more patients on time. If ever there was a time for us to provide much-needed investment in cancer treatment, it’s now.

Dr Amar Ahmad, a general practitioner based in Wilmslow, said: ‘It is very clear that Britain is in the midst of a growing cancer emergency. Just as there has been a concerted national effort to tackle the Covid pandemic, we need a similar national push to tackle the declining state of cancer diagnosis and treatment in the UK.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS is investing billions to expand diagnostic and treatment services to meet increased demand, as well as launching new initiatives including straight-to-test services, cancer symptom hotlines and truck mobile lung scans, which have already diagnosed more than a thousand cancers before, when they are easier to cure.

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