Two-week wait cancer target expected to be scrapped this week

SoR warns that government must invest in staff to guarantee timely, high quality care

Published: 14 August 2023 Radiotherapy

The NHS cancer target for patients to be seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral by a GP is expected to be scrapped this week.

NHS England consulted on possible changes to cancer targets last year, which would see the current nine waiting time standards reduced to three.

The targets recommended in the consultation included a 'faster diagnosis standard' that would aim for patients who were urgently referred to have a maximum 28-day wait to be told whether or not they had cancer. This is not currently one of the overall national cancer standards but hospitals have been required to meet this target for at least 75% of patients since October 2021 under the terms of the standard NHS contract.

SoR response

SoR Executive Director of Professional Policy Charlotte Beardmore said it was concerning that cancer targets set by the government were not being met and now dropped.

"However, national targets ‘measuring times’ to complete tasks do not measure patient outcomes; With survival and quality of life being important for patients, together with timely delivery, investment in services must be provided to deliver high quality and timely care for patients. Growth in the diagnostic radiography and therapeutic radiography workforce therefore remains critical."

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that the new targets would be announced by NHS England and the government later this week. On Monday morning health and social care secretary Steve Barclay told Sky News that the government would 'have something to say in the coming days'.

Mr Barclay said that any changes to cancer targets would be based on recommendations by clinical experts. He added that targets should be 'focused on outcomes' and improving survivability rates as opposed to the process of patients having checks.

Cancer waiting times

In its review of the current cancer standards, NHS England highlighted that the two-week wait was introduced 20 years ago. It pointed out that changes in technology and clinical practice meant that the target could now 'hamper clinical management and patient experience' and presented 'a barrier to modernisation and greater efficiency in clinical processes'.

The consultation said that the two-week wait had affected the introduction of FIT tests in colorectal cancer, which it said could reduce the number of people requiring colonoscopy and direct them to more appropriate tests, because trusts tended to offer outpatient appointments in the first instance to ensure they hit the target.

NHS England cancer waiting times data for June 2023 showed that 50,847 people waited more than two weeks to see a specialist following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer. In the same month more than 6,500 people with cancer in England waited more than two months to start treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.

Expected targets

The three new cancer standards recommended by NHS England in its consultation were:

  • Maximum 28-day wait to communication of definitive cancer/not cancer diagnosis for patients referred urgently and from NHS cancer screening.
  • Maximum two-month (62-day) wait to first treatment from urgent GP referral and NHS cancer screening
  • Maximum one-month (31-day) wait from decision to treat to any cancer treatment for all cancer patients

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