Doctors to get more help to spot cancer early

GPs and other primary health professionals given advice to avoid delays in recognising symptoms.

The NHS target is to ensure 85% of patients believed to have cancer are treated within 62 days. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

The NHS target is to ensure 85% of patients believed to have cancer are treated within 62 days. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

Health professionals will be given more help to identify the crucial early signs of cancer to prevent late diagnoses, under plans unveiled by the NHS’s advisers.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has published draft guidelines for GPs and other primary health professionals based on recent evidence about which symptoms “best predict cancer”.

Delays in recognising cancer symptoms could be costing the lives of thousands of people in England and Wales every year, the advisory body warns.

The guidelines, which are now subject to a public consultation, also provide clear recommendations for tests and how long people should wait to be seen by a specialist once they have been referred to hospital. They range from two weeks to 48 hours or sooner, depending on the patient’s symptoms.

People suspected of having cancer are being left “scared, anxious and distressed” by worsening delays in receiving NHS treatment, cancer campaigners warn.

More than 15,000 patients have been affected by the NHS’s failure to meet its target of ensuring that 85% of patients believed to have the disease are treated within 62 days of being referred urgently by their GP, new official figures show.

The NHS in England has missed that target for each of the past three quarters of this year, stretching from January to the end of September.

Between July and September, 5,519 people did not receive their first treatment within the 62 days, and the NHS managed just an 83.5% delivery rate. Hospitals also failed to treat 5,076 patients and 4,830 patients respectively in the two preceding quarters.

Macmillan Cancer Support said the deteriorating situation, in which growing numbers of hospital trusts were missing the 85% target, meant that failure to deliver timely cancer care “has become a fundamental problem within the NHS.”

Lynda Thomas, the charity’s chief executive, said: “Delays in diagnosis and waiting for treatment can leave a dark cloud hanging over people with cancer and their families, As they face the unknown, thousands of cancer patients will be left scared, anxious and distressed.

“No one should be forced to suffer like this. Yet today’s statistics show the current system isn’t working and people with cancer are being badly let down. With UK cancer survival rates far behind the rest of Europe, we must urgently look to fix this.”

Fewer than half of hospitals achieved the 85% target between July and September, NHS England figures show.

The figures are embarrassing for the prime minister, who has pledged to keep key NHS waiting times low.

“These figures confirm that cancer care is getting worse under David Cameron”, said Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary. “Thousands of people are facing longer waits for treatment to start and, in some cases, that could harm their chances of survival.”

Burnham accused Cameron of cutting the cancer budget by £800m and disrupting cancer services through the coalition’s unpopular reorganisation of the NHS.

Sean Duffy, NHS England’s national clinical director for cancer, said hospitals were diagnosing and treating more cancer patients than before “ helping more people than ever survive cancer”.

“We continue to treat the vast majority of patients within a month of deciding it is needed, whether that’s surgery, radiotherapy or cancer drugs. But it is crucial we focus on maintaining waiting time standards as this demand for care increases.”

NHS England is working with the two organisations which oversee hospitals, Monitor and the Trust Development “to tackle providers’ under-performance on the ground”, he said.

Earl Howe, the health minister, said cancer survival rates were improving. “We inherited the worst cancer survival rates in western Europe, but as the ONS [Office for National Statistics] says, outcomes for many types of cancer are now improving, and in fact survival rates have never been higher. The NHS is seeing 51% more patients with suspected cancer than 2010, and we have invested three-quarters of a billion in better early diagnosis and treatment to make progress towards our ambition to be the best country for cancer care in Europe,” he said.

Drug speed-up planned

Ministers are promising to cut years off the time it takes for National Health Service patients to receive life-saving new drugs.

The government is considering a radical overhaul of the way promising drugs are tested and cleared for use.

Life sciences minister George Freeman said unlocking the power of the NHS to be a “test-bed” for medical innovations could dramatically reduce the time it takes for patients to gain access to new treatments.

The Department of Health said a fresh approach was being made possible by developments in genomics (DNA sequencing) and digital technology.

Officials said the review would examine how these innovations could enable products to be brought from the laboratory “as quickly and safely possible”.

“This will transform the landscape of drug development from the 20th century model to a world in which the NHS becomes a partner in innovative testing, proving and adopting new drugs and devices in research studies with real patients,” Freeman told the Times.

“For too long NHS patients have seen drugs and innovations developed in the UK but not adopted here in our NHS.

“We are determined to unlock the power of our NHS to be a test-bed for the 21st century medical innovations we all need, getting NHS patients faster access, reducing the cost of drug development and boosting our life science sector.”

Among the issues the review will consider is how a more “collaborative” approach between the pharmaceutical companies and the regulatory and evaluation bodies can be developed to ensure innovative products are assessed more quickly.

It will also look at whether charities and patient groups could play a greater role and what more could be done to promote the rapid adoption of important medical innovations into clinical practice.