Tens of thousands of patients are still waiting to start cancer treatment in England due to disruption during the pandemic, NHS figures show, as medical charities have called on the government to tackle chronic staff shortages in health services.
Following a dramatic drop in cancer referrals in 2020, the number of people being investigated for the disease has rebounded over the past year, according to data from NHS England and NHS Improvement, rising from 2.4 million to a record 2.66 million.
But as referrals have increased, the number of patients starting treatment for the disease has risen more modestly, from 313,000 before the Covid crisis to 315,000 in the last 12 months, the figures show.
“We have seen a record number of people coming in for checks over the past year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 people who have not started treatment due to the pandemic, there It is therefore vital that we maintain these high baseline rates,” said Dame Cally Palmer, National Cancer Director for NHS England.
The NHS has doubled spending on cancer awareness campaigns and invested in cancer symptom helplines, mobile clinics and one-stop-shops for tests to meet growing demand for cancer checks . The goal is to catch the disease at an early stage when treatments and surgery are often successful.
But while the figures suggest progress is being made, medical charities said it was vital for the government to address chronic understaffing and increase the number of cancer specialists in the NHS as he “declares a national war on cancer” in his 10 year cancer plan.
Minesh Patel, policy manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is reassuring to see record numbers of people showing symptoms of cancer for these vital checks. However, people with cancer are often deprived of crucial care due to the chronic understaffing of the NHS.
“To avoid putting additional pressure on hard-working doctors and nurses, it is essential that the government includes measures in the next 10-year cancer plan to increase the number of cancer professionals, so that People with cancer are getting the quality, timely care they desperately need,” he said.
Last month, MPs on the House of Commons health and social care committee criticized the government’s failure to tackle NHS staff shortages, warning that hundreds of thousands of cancer patients in England will face a late cancer diagnosis in the coming years, threatening to reduce survival rates from the disease. The 52-page report found that, without further action, 340,000 patients will be denied an early diagnosis of cancer between 2019 and 2028.
The warning follows a House of Commons Library analysis in February which found that half a million people in England with suspected cancer would wait longer than the planned maximum of two weeks to see a specialist cancer this year.
Ian Walker, executive director of policy at Cancer Research UK, said: “We know the pandemic has had a devastating impact on cancer services and cancer waiting times were being missed before the pandemic. don’t knock. It is very encouraging to see an increased number of people being referred for cancer screening tests.
“But it is essential that the efforts of NHS staff are strengthened in the government’s next ten-year cancer plan. Our ambitions to dramatically improve early cancer diagnosis in this country depend on it.
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England, said GPs had referred patients for cancer checks in record numbers over the past year and worked hard to ensure that people with worrying symptoms can see a specialist.
“It’s vital that people keep coming forward,” he said. “If you have a sign or symptom that worries you, such as a persistent cough that is not Covid, or prolonged discomfort in your abdomen, please come forward. Getting checked could save your life.