Covid Scotland: Swift action needed to prevent 'cancer catastrophe' as NHS fails to meet target

Swift action is needed from the Scottish Government to prevent a “cancer catastrophe”, campaigners have claimed, as new figures showed the NHS has again failed to meet a key waiting times standard.

Ministers have set the target of having 95 per cent of patients begin treatment within 62 days of being referred for help because cancer is suspected.

But the latest data showed another decline in performance against this in the period July to September, with only 83.1 per cent beginning treatment in this timeframe – down from 84.1 per cent in the previous quarter and below the 87.3 per cent that was achieved in July to September last year.

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A patient undergoes a breast cancer screening test. Picture: PA

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None of Scotland’s health boards met the goal of starting to treat patients within two months of referral – and nor was this target achieved for any cancer types.

The latest figures from Public Health Scotland showed that in NHS Orkney, only two out of five (40 per cent) of patients referred with an urgent suspicion of cancer began treatment within two months, the lowest rate in Scotland.

And less than three quarters (71.8 per cent) of those suspected of having bowel cancer began treatment within two days, compared to 76 per cent of those with cervical cancer, 91.5 per cent of those with lung cancer and 92.7 per cent of those with breast cancer.

It comes as the number of people being referred to help increased by almost a third from the same time last year.

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There were 4,011 people referred for help in the period July to September – 31.6 per cent more than the same period last year, after cancer screening programmes were paused in Scotland at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest figures showed just over half (50.3 per cent) of those referred for treatment from the bowel cancer screening programme began getting help within two months in July to September.

This compares to 68.4 per cent of patients who were referred after cervical screening, and 94.5 per cent of those referred after breast screening.

Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “The lengthy cancer waiting times will inevitably lead to more lives being lost and will be putting great strain on those currently waiting on treatment.”

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Campaigners at Cancer Research UK also called for action from the Scottish Government. David Ferguson, the charity’s public affairs manager in Scotland, said in “an exceptionally tough winter for the NHS and its staff” such long waits would “be a huge worry for anyone who’s waiting for cancer treatment”.

Mr Ferguson insisted: “Swift action is needed from government and NHS leaders to prevent a cancer catastrophe.

“We know the Scottish Government is working on a new NHS workforce strategy. This must include both short term and long-term actions that will ensure we have the right staff in place to detect, diagnose and treat cancer. This will be essential when it comes to tackling waiting times and improving cancer survival.”

Kate Seymour, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Today’s cancer waiting times figures show that the targets continue to be missed.

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“Behind every breached waiting time is a person trying to cope with the stress and anxiety of not knowing if they have a life-threatening illness.

“Even before the pandemic, the system was struggling with the sheer numbers of people in need of treatment and support. There is still a backlog in cancer care, and immense pressures on the NHS and its staff, and this is only going to get worse as the winter pressures continue to build.

“Sufficient funding must be put in place to ensure the right workforce, including specialist cancer nurses, is available to deliver the high quality cancer care people in Scotland deserve.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “These figures show that more patients were treated within the 62-day standard following an urgent suspicion of cancer referral, compared to the same period pre-Covid.

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“Although there are still challenges, we recently published the Framework for Effective Cancer Management, providing NHS cancer teams with the tools to effectively manage patients with a suspicion of cancer, from the point of referral to first treatment. This will improve both patient experience and cancer waiting times.

“The Endoscopy and Urology Diagnostic Recovery and Renewal Plan, backed by £70 million investment, was published last month to address challenges in cancer pathways with scope-based diagnostic tests.

“Our national screening programmes are offering routine screening.

"However, capacity is challenged due to the sustained pressure that the NHS remains under as a result of the pandemic. We will ensure care continues to be delivered safely to patients, based on their clinical priority.”

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Despite the alarming statistics, the NHS as a whole did meet the target of having 95 per cent of patients start treatment once a decision had been made on how best to deal with their cancer.

This was achieved for 96.7 per cent of cancer patients in July to September, the figures showed – although this was down from 98.1 per cent of patients in the previous three months and 98.4 per cent of patients in the same period in 2020.

All health boards met this 31-day standard, apart from NHS Grampian, where 94.6 per cent of patients began getting treatment in this time, the data showed.

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