Dramatic rise in people waiting for scans to diagnose cancer

There has been a 44% rise in the last year in people waiting for key tests to diagnose bowel, stomach, bladder and oesophageal cancer, a charity has warned.

Cancer Research UK said 55,500 more people are now waiting to have key cancer tests in England compared to the same point last year.

Figures published by NHS England last week showed that more than half a million patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in May 2020, after having been referred by a GP.

(PA Graphics)

A total of 571,459 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy, which helps diagnose oesophageal and stomach cancer.

The equivalent number waiting for more than six weeks in May 2019 was much lower, at 43,230.

Drilling down into the NHS data, Cancer Research UK found there were more than 180,000 people in England waiting for an endoscopy at the end of May  – a rise of 44% from the same time in 2019.

Of these people, 66% were waiting six weeks or longer.

And, compared to the same point last year, 51% more people were waiting for colonoscopies and 46% more for flexi-sigmoidoscopies, which are used to detect bowel cancer.

Some 44% more patients were waiting for gastroscopies, while 23% more were waiting for a cystoscopy, used for bladder cancer diagnosis, the charity said.

Cancer Research UK said around 2.3 million fewer tests that help diagnose cancer have taken place since lockdown started.

The charity also warned that endoscopies were “proving particularly challenging to get back on track” as the NHS tries to restart services.

This is because the tests are invasive and need more complex infection control measures.

All the data is set against a backdrop of fewer people being referred for diagnostic tests, with some people too frightened to seek help from their GP.

Some 106,535 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in May 2020, down from 200,599 in May 2019 – a fall of 47%.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re over the peak of the pandemic now, so it’s worrying there is an increasing number of patients whose lives are on pause while they wait for tests that could impact their chances of survival.

“It’s crucial the Government works closely with the NHS to ensure it has the staff and equipment it needs to get services back on track before this situation gets even worse.

“But part of the reason the number of tests has reduced so dramatically is that people are delaying seeking help if they are worried about symptoms.

“So it’s more important than ever that anyone who is concerned about a change to their body speaks to their GP as soon as possible.”

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician said: “Even in ‘peace-time’ diagnostic testing was stretched to the limit, so the NHS faces a massive challenge to fast-track the millions of people waiting to find out if they have cancer.

“An essential part of this is frequent Covid-19 testing of NHS staff and patients, including those without symptoms, so that vulnerable patients aren’t put at risk of contracting the virus and aren’t nervous about going to hospital.

“We need a clear and detailed plan in place to ensure increased capacity to diagnose cancer across the country to avoid further delays.”

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