Record numbers of NHS cancer patients face ‘agonising wait’ to see specialist

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By Denis Campbell Health policy editor

In April alone nearly 20,000 people missed the 14-day target to meet with an oncologist

Record numbers of cancer patients are waiting longer than they should to see a specialist because NHS services cannot cope with the rise in people suspected of having the disease.

In April 19,963 people in England had to wait more than the 14-day maximum to have their first appointment with a cancer specialist – by far the largest number since records began.

NHS hospitals are supposed to ensure that 93% of all those referred by their GP for suspected cancer see an oncologist within a fortnight. But April was also the first time since the target was introduced in October 2009 that fewer than 90% did so. Performance was just 89.9% – the worst ever.

“When someone is first diagnosed or hears the words ‘we think it could be cancer’, their world often turns upside down in a single moment. The wait to see a specialist or to start treatment is an agonising time already, and facing further delays can make things even worse”, said Kate Goldie, a senior cancer information nurse specialist at Macmillan Cancer Support. “Those affected experience worry and uncertainty cannot go about their daily lives, while relatives are left feeling helpless,” she added.

NHS England data show that hospital trusts have failed to meet the 93% target in 10 of the last 12 months amid growing demand on, and serious staff shortages, in cancer services.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “It’s disgraceful that suspected cancer patients aren’t being seen on time, especially as we know that early diagnosis leads to better outcomes.”

In addition, two-thirds (66%) of trusts failed in April to ensure that the required 85% of cancer patients referred for urgent treatment within 62 days did start their care on time.

Another grim batch of NHS monthly performance statistics also showed that the waiting list of people referred for non-urgent care in hospital is the biggest on record at 4.3 million and that just 86% are treated within 18 weeks, even though it should be 92%.

“The latest set of NHS figures show a health service descending into an ever-deepening crisis and closer to a system unfit for purpose. Hospital, general practice and community services are struggling to cope”, said Dr Rob Harwood, chair of the consultants committee at the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union.

The only good news was that staff vacancies have fallen from 102,000 to 96,000. However, the number of unfilled posts in nursing is rising.

Separate figures released by NHS Improvement (NHSI) revealed that England’s 240 NHS trusts now owe a staggering £14bn to the government for emergency loans they have taken out to pay their running costs.

Experts said the total – by far the highest ever and up from £11bn last year – showed that years of under-funding during 2010 to 2019 had left the NHS unable to function within the budgets it had been given.

The £14bn is the sum total of bailouts that the Department of Health and Social Care has given trusts in recent years when they have hit serious financial problems, so they can continue to pay their staff and bills.

“The rapid growth in debt to the Department of Health is driven by the need for emergency loans from the department to pay the bills trusts aren’t able to put off: wages to staff and vital supplies. The scale of such loans is now so significant that in 2017 trusts owed more to the DH than they did to PFI companies”, said Sally Gainsbury, a senior policy analyst at the Nuffield Trust health thinktank.

While trusts recorded a combined deficit of £571m in 2018-19, down from £966m the year before, NHSI also admitted that the health service’s underlying deficit worsened from £4.3bn last year to £5bn.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS providers, which represents trusts, said trusts had put in “a strong financial performance” and improved the quality of care last year, given the huge pressures on hospitals.

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