Patients with one of the most lethal forms of cancer are having to wait months to have vital diagnostic tests, in a new sign of the relentless pressure on NHS services.
People suspected of having bowel cancer are facing waits of three months for tests when they should have them within a maximum of six weeks, the latest NHS waiting time figures show.
In March almost half the patients referred for the disease to Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust had to wait more than the six weeks set out in the NHS constitution. In all 144 (49.3%) of the 292 patients that month had to ensure waits of several months, and 39 of them were kept waiting for more than 13 weeks.
Campigners warned that patients could die as a result of the delays in patients undergoing either a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, the two tests used to detect bowel cancer.
Prof Colin Rees, vice-president of the British Society of Gastroenterology, said: “By testing the right people at the right time we can save lives and stop people dying needlessly.”
In March 24% of hospital trusts in England missed the six-week target for colonoscopy, which meant that 1,121 patients were kept waiting. In the same month, 18% of hospitals breached the six-week target for flexi-sigmoidoscopy.
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said the waiting times “present a worrying picture for patients”. She identified a lack of diagnotic staff as a key problem and lamented the latest of several delays in Health Education England publishing a plan, first promised in 2015, to boost the NHS cancer workforce.
About 41,000 people a year in the UK develop bowel cancer and around 16,000 die from it. It is Britain’s fourth most deadly cancer after lung, breast and prostate.
Meanwhile, NHS performance against its key waiting times targets is now the highest it has been for five years, NHS Englnd’s latest statistics show.
During 2015-16, 2.5 million people were not treated within four hours of arriving in A&E, and a total of 362,687 patients did not receive planned care in hospital – usually an operation – within 18 weeks.
Another 26,113 waited longer than 62 days for supposedly urgent cancer treatment after being referred by their GP, while 985,583 people with a life-threatening condition waited more than the maximum eight minutes for an ambulance to respond to an 999 call.
“These figures reveal the dismal human cost of the NHS crisis,” said Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman. “Millions of patients are waiting in distress and anxiety, but Theresa may doesn’t care.”
Responding to the latest monthly statistics, a Conservative spokesman said: “These figures show A&E performance has improved a great deal since the equivalent time last year. Waiting times for an operation again got shorter in March, and crucially patient outcomes continue to improve. Breast cancer survival is at its highest ever level.”
The figures came as the Health Foundation warned that the care patients receive is under threat because of the NHS’s unprecedented financial squeeze.
In a report, the thinktank says: “It is difficult to see how the intense financial pressures on all NHS and social care services will not threaten the quality of care in the near future if nothing changes.
“As OECD analyses have shown, the UK’s performance on quality is middling when compared with other OECD countries, but then so are our funding levels.”