Growing numbers of hospitals are forcing cancer patients to wait longer than they should for vital NHS treatment, official figures show.
In April the NHS failed to meet three key targets that set out the maximum length of time patients should wait before receiving treatment.
They were among a raft of missed targets for many different types of care, which left hospital bosses warning they are “struggling to cope” with an unprecedented demand for care while facing staffing and financial problems.
Hospitals failed to ensure that the required 93% of patients with suspected cancer got to see a specialist within two weeks of urgent referral by a GP for only the second time since records began in 2009. Just 92.6% of patients got to see a consultant on time in April.
A total of 104,487 people had to wait longer than two weeks in the year to April, NHS England’s performance data shows.
The NHS’s performance was even worse for patients with suspected symptoms of breast cancer. Only 89.7% of them had a first appointment, when again the standard says it should be 93%.
Hospitals also could not fulfil their duty to give at least 85% of new cancer patients their first definitive treatment within 62 days, doing so in just 82.9% of cases. In all more than 25,000 people had to wait longer than 62 days for care during 2016-17, NHS England’s figures show.
The missed targets were disappointing, said Moira Fraser, Macmillan Cancer Support’s director of policy and public affairs. “Every person diagnosed with cancer must be treated as quickly as possible, and nobody should have to deal with the anxiety of waiting for months on end for treatment,” she said.
“It is a particular concern to see that the two-week wait target to see a specialist has been breached for only the second month since it was introduced in 2009. It is a time of great uncertainty for people with suspected cancer, and this must not become a trend.”
The NHS trust with the largest number of patients who did not get to see a cancer specialist there within 14 days in April was Worcestershire Acute hospitals trust. In all 456 patients (35%) had to wait longer.
At Medway NHS foundation trust in Kent 353 patients (32%) waited beyond 14 days, as did another 263 (25%) at St George’s University hospitals NHS foundation trust in London.
Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of the charity Breast Cancer Care, said: “Waiting to see a specialist is an extremely anxious time for women and men who have found a potential breast cancer symptom. The two-week wait for referral dipped under target for six out of the 12 months and varies significantly between NHS trusts.”
Among other missed targets in April:
- Fewer than one in five A&E units treated 95% of patients within four hours
- Delayed transfers of care, in which a medically fit person becomes trapped in hospital, hit their highest ever level. In all 177,137 hospital bed days were lost because of such delays – an average of 5,905 bed days every day.
- The number of people waiting to have a procedure in hospital hit its highest level since September 2008 – 3.78m in all
- More and more patients are having to wait longer than six months or even nine months, despite the NHS’s duty to treat them within 18 weeks.
- 1.8% of the 1,647,451 patients who had an X-ray or scan waited longer than the six week supposed maximum enshrined in the NHS Constitution, when no more than 1% should slip beyond that time
- just 89.9% of patients waiting to receive non-urgent care in hospital inside 18 weeks did so, when 92% of such patients should be treated by then.
“The monthly performance statistics for April show trusts are continuing to respond to growing pressures, but there are further signs that they are struggling to cope. The situation is unsustainable”, said Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts.
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