The NHS has launched a consultation to gather feedback on proposed new cancer standards designed to set faster deadlines for diagnosis, referral and treatment.
The impact of the pandemic on NHS services has left cancer waiting times in England at their highest on record, latest NHS England data has also shown.
This has left many thousands of patients – many of them of working age – either off work or struggling to stay in work while stuck on longer and longer waiting lists to see a specialist or start treatment.
This can have a physical knock-on, in that the earlier diagnosis and treatment for cancer the better normally the outcome. But it can also have significant mental health effects, in terms of increased worry and anxiety while waiting to be seen.
Three new standards have been proposed. A 28-day faster diagnosis standard would see patients who have been urgently referred, have breast symptoms, or have been picked up through screening have cancer ruled out or receive a diagnosis within 28 days.
Then, a 62-day referral-to-treatment standard would mean patients who receive a cancer diagnosis will start treatment within nine weeks from the date of referral.
Finally, a 31-day decision to treat-to treatment standard would ensure cancer patients receive their first treatment within a month of a decision to treat following diagnosis.
The waits situation is despite the fact the NHS has been working hard to maintain access to cancer care throughout the pandemic.
NHS England has said the number of people getting checked for cancer increased by more than half a million (512,110) in one year between December 2020 and December 2021.
In December alone, there were more 215,000 urgent referrals for cancer and more than nine out of 10 people started treatment within one month, it added.
Before the faster diagnosis standard was introduced, access standards for cancer have remained unchanged since 2009. The current two-week wait target sets no expectation of when patients should receive test results or actually get a confirmed diagnosis, NHS England has said.
Dame Cally Palmer, NHS national director for cancer said: “Access standards have been key to improving timeliness of treatment for people with cancer since they were first introduced in 2000.
“As we see advances in diagnosis and treatments for cancer, it is only right that these standards are modernised – so that we can ensure patients are diagnosed more quickly and are given the treatment they need as soon as possible, helping us save even more lives.
“These proposed changes are an important part of improving cancer care and so from today, the NHS will be inviting views from patients, staff and the public,” she added.