Cancer sufferers treated within target time falls to lowest level in two years

Just 83 per cent of patients requiring urgent treatment for suspected cancers were treated within the two-month target time, according to the latest NHS Scotland statistics – the lowest level in two years.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf. Picture: Jane Barlow-Pool/Getty Images

However, once a decision to treat the cancer was made, 97.7 per cent of patients started treatment within the 31-day target, with an average wait of five days.

Cancer waiting time statistics published by Public Health Scotland for the first quarter of this year show increased numbers of patients being referred compared to the end of 2020, but the numbers are still far below pre-pandemic levels.

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Of the 3,601 patients urgently referred for treatment with a suspected cancer between January and March, 2,988 (83 per cent) started treatment within 62 days.

The total number of patients was an increase of 2.9 per cent on the previous quarter, but still 6.1% below the quarter ending March 31, 2020.

The average waiting time was 43 days, although the maximum recorded wait was 244 days.

Across Scotland, the Scottish Government’s target of 95 per cent of eligible patients waiting for treatment was only met by two health boards: NHS Shetland and NHS Borders.

The 31-day standard, which is a target for 95 per cent of patients to wait no longer than that from the time the decision to treat is made to first cancer treatment, was met in 5,683 out of the 5,816 cases (97.7 per cent).

That is down from 98.6 per cent on the final three months of 2020, but up from 96.2 per cent in the first quarter of that year.

There were 5,816 eligible referrals within the 31-day standard, an increase of 2.1 per cent from the previous quarter but a decrease of 10 per cent for quarter ending March 31, 2020.

On average, treatment began after just five days, although the maximum wait was 131.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf said: “It is reassuring that, during a further national Covid-19 lockdown in the first quarter of 2021, once a decision to treat was made cancer patients in Scotland waited on average five days for treatment.

“The 31-day standard has been consistently met throughout the pandemic.

“While the overall aim is to improve cancer-waiting-times performance, our priority, as the NHS continues to remobilise, remains ensuring that vital services are delivered safely to patients based on their clinical priority.

“This week we have announced a further £10 million will be provided to health boards across Scotland to improve cancer waiting times – through investment which will be used to enhance staffing, for diagnostic tests, and to support evening and weekend working so more patients can be seen.”

According to the Public Health Scotland report, some boards have highlighted that staffing and capacity issues have impacted on performance in the latest quarter, with issues arising around self-isolation, social distancing and cleaning time between patients.

The increase in eligible referrals is largely due to the gradual reopening of three screening programmes – breast and cervical, which resumed from July 13 and bowel screening which resumed on October 12.

Andy Glyde, senior external affairs manager for Cancer Research UK in Scotland, said the statistics showed cancer services in Scotland “continue to struggle”.

He added: “Diagnosing cancer early and offering patients swift access to the most effective treatment can also be lifesaving.

“The Scottish Government has committed to improving waiting times and their announcement of new funding to tackle the backlog is welcome.

“We now need to see detailed plans of how this funding will be used to address the long-standing staff shortages which existed within cancer services before the pandemic struck.”

Scottish Labour’s health and Covid recovery spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: "Scotland is living through a national emergency in cancer care – and it is costing lives.

“These shameful figures are made even more shocking when you realise that the pandemic has seen referrals drop, meaning many Scots could be living with cancer and not even know it.

“The SNP claim to be dealing with the cancer crisis but the figures speak for themselves.

“These targets have not been met in over eight years, and this crisis is getting worse, not better.

“Lives are on the line and we cannot afford to waste any more time.”

The Scottish Conservatives stressed a £10 million from Mr Yousaf to improve cancer waiting times was simply not enough to guarantee patients were treated urgently.

Tories shadow health secretary Annie Wells said: “SNP ministers must go further and faster to urgently tackle the backlog in waiting times for patients.

“The £10m worth of funding from SNP ministers is simply not enough to guarantee patients will get treated within their own target timescales and was announced to try and divert attention away ahead of these figures being published.

“The Scottish Conservatives will continue to argue for a one-off £600m investment into the NHS to bring treatment times under control, which would be led by a dedicated team of clinicians.”

Overall, only two of Scotland’s 14 health boards met the 62-day standard waiting time for urgent referral to the start of cancer treatment.

Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Information about cervical cancer screening errors was deliberately withheld from the public until the last day of the parliamentary term. Women may know themselves if they had a subtotal hysterectomy and could have booked in for screening, but as it is more precious time has been lost.

“In the meantime, the Scottish Government have continued to fail cancer patients across Scotland who need timely treatment. With more women likely to need screening and follow-up care as a result of the public health scandal, the Scottish Government need to get a grip of cancer care and treatment.

“Treatment time guarantees have never been the Scottish Government’s strong suit, but these failures cannot be swept up under the excuse of the pandemic. We are on the cusp of a crisis."

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