Targets For Cancer Waiting Times May Soon Be Scrapped. Here's Why

Experts are divided over whether this could help or hinder treatment.
Why could cancer waiting times targets soon be scrapped?
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Why could cancer waiting times targets soon be scrapped?

NHS England is considering reducing its own targets when it comes to waiting times for cancer treatment.

While the government insists this is a safe plan backed by specialists, some charity experts have expressed concern.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is changing?

Instead of there being nine targets when it comes to cancer treatment, the NHS is looking to cut it back to three. Many of the targets are also routinely missed nowadays – according to Cancer Research UK, England has not hit any of the four main ones recently.

The targets which will stay:

1. Diagnosis of cancer within 28 days of referral

2. Starting treatment within two months (62 days) of an urgent referral

3. Starting treatment one month after a decision to treat

The main target which is expected to be dropped is the two-week wait for a first consultant appointment after a GP referral.

Why are targets changing?

These alterations have been under consultation since 2022, but they are likely to come into practice in the coming days once health secretary Steve Barclay gives it the final nod.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “By making sure more patients are diagnosed and treated as early as possible following a referral and replacing the outdated two-week wait target with the faster diagnosis standard already being used across the country, hundreds of patients waiting to have cancer ruled out or diagnosed could receive this news faster.”

It’s also supposed to allow patients to go “straight to test” and allow more diagnostic technologies like artificial intelligence to be used.

Barclay told BBC Breakfast on Monday: “This is something led by clinicians working in cancer – it is not something being imposed by the government.”

It’s worth noting how many targets have been missed in recent years, too.

According to Cancer Research UK, England has not hit any of the four main ones recently.

The target for urgent suspected cancer referrals standard (seeing a specialist within two weeks) is 93% – as of June 2023, this was 80.5%.

The target for diagnosis (or having cancer ruled out) is 75% – in June, it was 73.5%.

The target for 62-day standard, where people receive treatment within two months of their diagnosis, was 85%. As of June, the NHS achieved only 59.2%.

Just 91.3% of people started treatment within 31 days of a doctor-approved treatment plan in June 2023 – the target is 96%.

Should we be worried?

Well, experts are divided.

The NHS says leading cancer experts support the plan, and that it modernises the UK’s standards.

Cancer Research UK’s director of evidence and implementation, Naser Turabi, said of the figures last week that the UK is missing targets because of “years of underinvestment” from the government, and called for bold action.

However, he did praise the streamlining of the services saying it could be beneficial, by setting “clearer expectations for patients about when they should receive a diagnosis or have their cancer ruled out”.

However, Pat Price, the head of the Radiotherapy UK charity, said she is “deeply worried”, and that the UK is not investing enough in cancer treatment capacity.

She told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “Is it really the best the government and senior NHS leaders can do, is fiddle around with targets in the midst of this crisis?”

She said the NHS’s current performance on cancer care was “shockingly bad”.

Labour’s Keir Starmer said the government was just “moving the goalposts” when they fail to hit their existing targets.

Reducing waiting lists are one of Rishi Sunak’s five priorities for 2023, but the overall number of patients waiting for treatment in England reached a record high of 7.57 million in June.