Lives are being put at risk because of growing waiting lists and longer waits for key medical tests, the Scottish Government has been warned.
The number of patients waiting for diagnostic tests such as MRI scans, CT scans, colonoscopies, endoscopies or ultrasounds not linked to pregnancy rose by 10,304 (up 8.9%) between June and September.
The latest NHS Scotland figures also reveal that 42.2% of the patients needing key diagnostic tests had been waiting longer than the Scottish Government’s six-week target.
According to the government’s standards, no patient should wait more than six weeks for one of the eight tests, although this target has not been met since 2010.
Of the 125,557 patients on the waiting lists, 53,023 were waiting longer than six weeks as of September 30 – more than three times higher than the monthly average in the year before the coronavirus pandemic.
The 57.8% who had been waiting fewer than six weeks was down from 62.6% at the end of June and significantly below the 81.5% average between March 2019 and February 2020.
The figures coincide with the publication of cancer mortality rates that show there were 16,184 deaths from the disease in 2020, a slight decrease from the 16,366 registered the previous year but the second-highest on record.
However, the overall risk of dying from cancer – calculated by an age-adjusted cancer mortality rate – has fallen by 13% for men and 7% for women over the past decade.
Responding to the figures, Cancer Research UK’s Scottish public affairs manager, David Ferguson, said: “The number of people waiting too long for a test to determine whether they have cancer is deeply worrying.
“Without action, it could take years to clear the backlog caused by the pandemic. And we’re very concerned that, for some patients, delays to diagnosis and starting treatment could make it more difficult to treat their cancer. This is a completely unacceptable situation.
“Substantial staff shortages, which existed before the pandemic, are at the heart of these delays. NHS winter pressures will only make the situation worse. This must be addressed urgently.”
“We need a detailed plan from the Scottish Government to ensure we have enough staff to test and diagnose cancer. Funding to deliver the right equipment and improved ways of working is also crucial.
“The Scottish Budget must deliver the investment needed to meet these challenges, reduce diagnostic waiting times and save more lives.”
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “Today’s statistics clearly show that the NHS is facing a deepening crisis, with thousands of Scots stuck on waiting lists.
“This SNP government is presiding over record-breaking waiting lists and the threat to patient outcomes could not be clearer.
“Frontline NHS staff are working tirelessly to deliver for patients, but the SNP government has entirely failed to support them in their work.
“If lives are to be saved, the Health Secretary must act now.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane added: “It is hugely concerning and unacceptable that more than 125,000 patients are waiting for these key diagnostic tests.
“The figures have dramatically worsened in the last year and they indicate that Humza Yousaf has no strategy for dealing with this crisis and reducing waiting times.
“These delays create greater stress for patients, on top of their underlying health problems, and my heart goes out to them.
“While the pandemic has placed additional strain on Scotland’s NHS, even prior to it, the SNP’s record on hitting health targets wasn’t good enough. They must urgently come up with a plan to ensure that these patients are seen far quicker.”