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Cancer waiting times: Latest updates and analysis

by Sophia Lowes , Imogen Powell Brown | Analysis

8 February 2024

8 comments 8 comments

Woman waiting in hospital waiting room
Credit: toodtuphoto/Shutterstock.com


This article provides information on the latest performance against cancer waiting times targets. We have another piece explaining the recent changes to cancer waiting times in England.



Over the past few years, pressure on NHS cancer services has been mounting.

Cancer waiting times, which show whether the health system is meeting its targets for quickly diagnosing and treating cancer, help show us the extent of this pressure.

Testing for cancer, diagnosing it and starting treatment quickly saves people from stress and anxiety. Not only this, but cancer that’s diagnosed and treated at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread, is more likely to be treated successfully. Prompt diagnosis and treatment underpin this.

December 2023 was the first month that the reported data on cancer waiting times is reflecting the new updated NHSE targets, as explained in our previous article

The standards have been streamlined into 3 key cancer waiting time standards with associated targets that  indicate how well cancer services are doing.  

Here are the latest results in England for December 2023:

The Faster Diagnosis Standard: Target Missed

  • 74.2% of people were diagnosed, or had cancer ruled out, within 28 days of an urgent referral in December 2023. The target is 75% and has never been met since its introduction in October 2021.

The 62-day referral to treatment standard: Target Missed

  • Only 65.9% of people in England received their diagnosis and started their first treatment within 2 months (or 62 days) of an urgent referral* in December 2023. The target is 85%.

The 31-day decision to treat standard: Target Missed

  • 91.1% of people started treatment** within 31 days of doctors deciding a treatment plan in December 2023. The target is 96%

The above data are specific to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own cancer waiting times targets. 

Thousands of cancer patients across England face unacceptable waits to be diagnosed and treated. This week, the UK Government admitted that they have not made enough progress on their pledge to cut NHS waiting lists - patients and hardworking staff continue to suffer as a result.

The latest figures show just 66% of patients in England are beginning treatment within two months of an urgent referral. The UK Government must take urgent action and provide additional investment for the NHS, coupled with reform to cancer services, so that cancer patients receive the level of care that they deserve.

- Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK's chief executive

What does this mean for people affected by cancer?

It can be easy to forget that behind these numbers are real people going through an incredibly anxious time.

Quantifying the impact of missing targets and longer waits on patient outcomes is difficult as the research is limited.

The picture is different for different cancer types – some progress quicker than others – but we know the overall impact is likely to be negative. One study estimated that a 4-week delay to cancer surgery led to a 6-8% increased risk of dying.

People with more aggressive cancers are prioritised for early treatment where possible, but there can be good reasons why someone might experience a long wait for treatment.

For example, it can take longer to plan treatments intending to cure someone’s cancer, and sometimes patients need prehabilitation before starting treatment to give them the best chance of recovering well.

But increases in missed targets mean people who need potentially lifesaving cancer treatments are waiting, and worrying, for longer – and that is a big concern.

Despite delays, people shouldn’t put off coming forward if they are worried about symptoms. It’s always better to be on the waiting list than not at all, and if doctors are concerned, they will push things through as quickly as possible.

Getting back on track

Behind today’s figures shows a familiar picture that we have been seeing over the past decade, that cancer services are struggling to reach key targets.  

This is leaving patients facing anxious waits for cancer diagnosis and treatment when a matter of weeks can be enough for some cancers to progress. Considering the best efforts of NHS staff, the figures represent a long-term failure to plan and invest in the NHS workforce and key facilities and equipment.  

With improvements in survival for cancer showing signs of slowing and the demand on services only set grow in the future, it is vital that cancer is a top priority for all UK political parties ahead of this year’s general election. That’s why we published Longer, Better Lives which sets out the 5 missions which we want the next Government to adopt and implement to help reduce cancer mortality rates by 15% and prevent 20,000 cancer deaths a year by 2040. 

Longer, Better Lives provides the ‘cancer blueprint’ for political parties ahead of a 2024 general election, setting actions which can be taken to ensure that services are diagnosing more cancers at early stages and so that those who go on to receive a diagnosis have access to optimal treatments. To build momentum behind this, the next UK Government should commit to consistently meeting all Cancer Waiting Time targets for England by the end of the next Parliament, and address NHS resource gaps by developing a 10-year cancer-specific workforce plan, eliminating the wider NHS maintenance backlog by 2030 and committing to rolling ringfenced capital investment for cancer. This will only be possible through significant investment in NHS staff, equipment coupled with reform to cancer services.  

The cancer crisis is urgent and it’s real. To overcome it requires strong leadership and political will. However, with a relentless focus on diagnosing cancers earlier and reducing inequalities, bringing tests, treatment and innovations to patients more quickly and building a national movement to beat cancer, together – we can elevate UK cancer survival to amongst the best in the world and help everyone lead longer, better lives free from the fear of cancer. 

 


 

* Urgent referrals include urgent referrals from a GP for cancer symptoms or breast symptoms, urgent referrals from a cancer screening programme, and referrals upgraded by a consultant. 

It’s important to note that the update to cancer waiting times standards in October 2023 means that more types of referral are now included in the 62-day standard. This means that that the 62-day standard now applies to more people than before. 

** This standard includes people starting their first treatment for cancer and also people starting any subsequent treatments. Before October 2023, the 31day standard included first treatments only.  

    Comments

  • cuddle mcch
    8 November 2023

    too informative and thanks for sharing this much knowledge with us.

  • Mrs Birch
    7 November 2023

    Husband diagnosed with bladder cancer in August 2023. Awaiting a bladder removal. Aggressive cancer & waiting list is 4-5 months. Due according to the surgeon to strikes. I will be taking legal advice & action. NOT good enough.

  • Chris Allen
    22 September 2023

    I had a PSA test in January that scored 19. The follow up test two weeks later scored 21.
    I then had an MRI scan followed buy a CT scan & prostate gland biopsy.
    On 19th May a consultant Urologist at Leicester General Hospital told me I had stage three cancer with a high Gleeson score. He prescribed hormone treatment and referred me to Oncology.
    On the 22nd Aug I saw an Oncology consultant & was told I needed seven & half weeks of radiotherapy. Owing to the “backlog” treatment wouldn’t start for two & half months and if I hadn’t heard anything by then to “Give them a call”
    I was advised by Prostaid to “chase this up”
    Today I called Radiotherapy at Leicester Royal Infirmary and was told I’m number eighty in the queue and the list is being cleared at four per week. Unfortunately, it looks as if I have another five months to wait before any futher treatment will start.
    I’ll continue with hormone injections.

  • Vivien Hall
    16 September 2023

    My daughter was diagnosed with grade 4 bladder cancer on 14th July 2023. She has still not started treatment. Is this because they know she’s going to die so they see no urgency in treating her. They can’t operate and she only saw the oncologist 10 days ago. It’s disgraceful. She is very distressed at the lack of treatment and this can’t be doing her any good physically either.

  • Carol Price
    3 September 2023

    I am not happy I have not had chemo for 6mths it is very stressful

  • Jerry Golding
    22 July 2023

    From my own experience, I cannot fault the care and treatment I have received from Oxford University NHS Trust.
    I was referred by my GP for tests on 14/02/23, received a phone call from my local hospital, The Horton General in Banbury, on the 15th inviting me for a CT Scan on the 16th, on the 16th I received another phone call this time from the endoscopy unit offering me an appointment on the 18th,…. bad news! On the 1st March I was sat in front of my consultant at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford getting the really bad news. I started palliative chemotherapy and immunotherapy on 29th March and have just completed my sixth and final cycle of chemo with immuno to continue. Perhaps I am lucky (well only sort of, because the outcome is now per-ordained) because of where I live and OUHNHSTrust includes the Churchill Hospital, an acknowledged cancer care unit. Finally, a big shout out to ALL the wonderful and caring staff, from Professor Ramon De Melo, Dr. (Consultant) Paul Miller, all the Macmillan nurses, all the nurses and staff at the Horton GH in Banbury and particularly those at the Brodey Center who administer the chemo/immuno therapies.

  • Lynette Higgins
    14 July 2023

    I waited 10 weeks for results of my two yearly scan! Consultant said well if it was good news I would have rang you within a couple of weeks! I started palliative chemo 16 weeks after my scan! The stress this has caused for me and my family is unimaginable. My cancer is not curable but it is treatable. At the time of the scan my cancer spread was small but 16 weeks down the line who knows!

  • Dr Sheila Cartwright
    13 July 2023

    These figures showing the many missed targets are absolutely shocking but don’t come as a surprise. As a former experienced RadiationOncologist in the north of England, I kept making awareness of delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment, particularly radiotherapy, in the public domain 30 years ago. The current dreadful missed target figures are a direct result of long term significant underfunding of cancer services by many governments and are extremely worrying.

Tell us what you think

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read our comment policy.

    Comments

  • cuddle mcch
    8 November 2023

    too informative and thanks for sharing this much knowledge with us.

  • Mrs Birch
    7 November 2023

    Husband diagnosed with bladder cancer in August 2023. Awaiting a bladder removal. Aggressive cancer & waiting list is 4-5 months. Due according to the surgeon to strikes. I will be taking legal advice & action. NOT good enough.

  • Chris Allen
    22 September 2023

    I had a PSA test in January that scored 19. The follow up test two weeks later scored 21.
    I then had an MRI scan followed buy a CT scan & prostate gland biopsy.
    On 19th May a consultant Urologist at Leicester General Hospital told me I had stage three cancer with a high Gleeson score. He prescribed hormone treatment and referred me to Oncology.
    On the 22nd Aug I saw an Oncology consultant & was told I needed seven & half weeks of radiotherapy. Owing to the “backlog” treatment wouldn’t start for two & half months and if I hadn’t heard anything by then to “Give them a call”
    I was advised by Prostaid to “chase this up”
    Today I called Radiotherapy at Leicester Royal Infirmary and was told I’m number eighty in the queue and the list is being cleared at four per week. Unfortunately, it looks as if I have another five months to wait before any futher treatment will start.
    I’ll continue with hormone injections.

  • Vivien Hall
    16 September 2023

    My daughter was diagnosed with grade 4 bladder cancer on 14th July 2023. She has still not started treatment. Is this because they know she’s going to die so they see no urgency in treating her. They can’t operate and she only saw the oncologist 10 days ago. It’s disgraceful. She is very distressed at the lack of treatment and this can’t be doing her any good physically either.

  • Carol Price
    3 September 2023

    I am not happy I have not had chemo for 6mths it is very stressful

  • Jerry Golding
    22 July 2023

    From my own experience, I cannot fault the care and treatment I have received from Oxford University NHS Trust.
    I was referred by my GP for tests on 14/02/23, received a phone call from my local hospital, The Horton General in Banbury, on the 15th inviting me for a CT Scan on the 16th, on the 16th I received another phone call this time from the endoscopy unit offering me an appointment on the 18th,…. bad news! On the 1st March I was sat in front of my consultant at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford getting the really bad news. I started palliative chemotherapy and immunotherapy on 29th March and have just completed my sixth and final cycle of chemo with immuno to continue. Perhaps I am lucky (well only sort of, because the outcome is now per-ordained) because of where I live and OUHNHSTrust includes the Churchill Hospital, an acknowledged cancer care unit. Finally, a big shout out to ALL the wonderful and caring staff, from Professor Ramon De Melo, Dr. (Consultant) Paul Miller, all the Macmillan nurses, all the nurses and staff at the Horton GH in Banbury and particularly those at the Brodey Center who administer the chemo/immuno therapies.

  • Lynette Higgins
    14 July 2023

    I waited 10 weeks for results of my two yearly scan! Consultant said well if it was good news I would have rang you within a couple of weeks! I started palliative chemo 16 weeks after my scan! The stress this has caused for me and my family is unimaginable. My cancer is not curable but it is treatable. At the time of the scan my cancer spread was small but 16 weeks down the line who knows!

  • Dr Sheila Cartwright
    13 July 2023

    These figures showing the many missed targets are absolutely shocking but don’t come as a surprise. As a former experienced RadiationOncologist in the north of England, I kept making awareness of delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment, particularly radiotherapy, in the public domain 30 years ago. The current dreadful missed target figures are a direct result of long term significant underfunding of cancer services by many governments and are extremely worrying.

Tell us what you think

Leave a Reply

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Read our comment policy.