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Cancer Waiting Time Targets Under Review in NHS Proposals

The National Health Service (NHS) England is considering the removal of the two-week target for patients to see a specialist if they are suspected of having cancer. This proposal is part of a consultation on a new “faster diagnosis standard” that suggests patients who have been urgently referred should have their cancer ruled out or diagnosed within 28 days.

An NHS England spokesperson confirmed that the proposals are under consideration and highlighted that these changes have the backing of cancer experts and charitable organizations.

The new standard aims to ensure that more patients are diagnosed and treated promptly after referral, thus replacing the outdated two-week target with a faster diagnosis standard already in use across the country. This transition could help hundreds of patients receive timely cancer diagnosis or rule-out news. Additionally, it would reduce the need for unnecessary outpatient appointments and support the implementation of cutting-edge diagnostic technologies, including artificial intelligence.

While some experts find streamlining targets sensible, they emphasize that the focus should be on overcoming the bottlenecks in cancer care. Workforce issues remain a significant concern.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay assured that any changes to cancer targets would only be made if recommended by cancer clinical experts and after consultation with leading charities. He highlighted the importance of survivability rates and the involvement of clinical figures and cancer charities in the decision-making process.

The NHS consultation began last year, acknowledging that the current two-week wait target does not set expectations for receiving test results or a confirmed diagnosis.

Cancer Research UK supports the proposed new targets, seeing potential for diagnosis improvements. However, others like oncologist Pat Price, the head of the Radiotherapy UK charity, express concerns that poor performance is linked to insufficient investment in cancer treatment capacity and the broader cancer care pathway.

The faster diagnosis standard suggests that urgently referred patients, those with suspected breast cancer symptoms, or those identified through screening should have cancer ruled out or diagnosed within 28 days. The standard also sets targets for first treatment within a month of diagnosis and treatment initiation within nine weeks of referral.

The current nine cancer performance targets span three categories, including the two-week wait for a GP referral to a consultant appointment, a one-month wait for treatment after the decision to offer treatment, and a two-month wait from urgent GP referral to first cancer treatment.

The proposed faster diagnosis standard would initially aim for a performance threshold of 75%, signifying that three-quarters of patients should have a diagnosis within a month.

These proposals come as recent NHS England figures revealed that cancer wait times are falling short of government and NHS targets. The June data showed that 80.5% of patients saw a specialist within two weeks, below the 93% target. Similar challenges were observed in Wales.

The potential removal of the two-week target is under discussion, and further announcements are expected in the coming days. The goal is to ensure more timely and effective cancer care, addressing the challenges that persist within the current system.

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