A piece by Chris Smyth, Health Editor, in yesterday’s Times:
At least a fifth of cancer patients suffered avoidable delays in diagnosis that could have harmed their chances of recovery, according to the first study of its kind.
A quarter of patients waited more than three months to find out they had cancer as backlogs in getting test results, long waits for appointments and red tape prolonged diagnosis, the analysis by researchers at Public Health England found. Men with prostate cancer waited four times as long for a diagnosis as women with breast cancer.
Britain’s cancer survival rates have long lagged behind the best in Europe and later diagnosis is thought to be one of the key reasons. Researchers carried out an audit of 17,000 patients, aiming to pinpoint why patients in Britain had to wait so long to find out they have cancer.
The average patient took 40 days from seeing a GP to be diagnosed, well above the target of 28 days that is to be introduced next year. Most of this delay came after a GP had referred patients to hospitals.
Greg Rubin, of Newcastle University, senior author of the research paper, said this suggested that the focus needed to shift away from family doctors. “The time after GP referral before a patient is diagnosed is a period we haven’t focused on before, and maybe we should,” he said. “It is a significant number of people [facing long waits] and we need to consider why.”
Doctors estimated that 22 per cent of patients had avoidable delays getting diagnoses, with “system” problems such as getting test results the main culprits, according to results published in the British Journal of General Practice.
“There is growing evidence for delays having adverse effects on outcomes for cancer,” Professor Rubin warned. “Even a minimal period of time can have consequences. The longer it takes to provide patients with a diagnosis the more advanced the cancer. It’s not supportable to say that it doesn’t matter.”
While he said that individual patients should not panic if their treatment had been delayed he demanded improvement, saying that speeding up the diagnosis process could help Britain close the gap in survival rates.
Jodie Moffat, of Cancer Research UK, which helped fund the study, said: “Too many patients have waited far too long for diagnostic tests or getting the results back. This must change.”
Rosie Loftus, joint chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “As one in two of us will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lifetime, it’s crucial that patients have as good an experience as possible during this life-changing moment.”
More than 350,000 people develop cancer each year. Although diagnosing breast cancer takes 14 days on average, this rises to 66 days for kidney cancer. Prostate Cancer UK has demanded improvement on the 56 days it takes to spot the most common male cancer.
An NHS England spokeswoman said: “In the three years since these 2014 figures were collected, the NHS has published a national cancer strategy and, thanks to improved NHS care, an extra 2,000 people now survive cancer each year.”
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