Cancer treatment waiting time performance falls to new record low

The Scottish Government's target is for 95% of patients to be seen within 62 days of an urgent suspicion of cancer referral.

Scottish Government criticised as cancer waiting time performance falls to record low levels iStock
Cancer: Government criticised over recent figures.

The Scottish Government has been criticised for “focusing on independence” as cancer treatment waiting time performance fell to a new record low.

One of Scotland’s leading cancer charities said the latest figures show the system “must be changed urgently”.

The standard, which has not been met since 2012, states that 95% of eligible patients should wait a maximum of 62 days from urgent suspicion of cancer referral to first cancer treatment.

Figures for the first quarter of 2022 show performance against treatment target fell to 76.9%, down from 79.1% in the previous quarter.

Opposition parties said the figures, according to a 62-day measurement released on Tuesday, should be a “source of shame” and a “wake up call” to the SNP and health secretary Humza Yousaf.

Statistics from Public Health Scotland showed performance against another target, the 31-day standard from decision to treat to first cancer treatment, was met with 96.3% of patients being seen within this timeframe.

The 62-day standard, which is based on the time from urgent suspicion of cancer referral to first cancer treatment, was only met by NHS Borders.

The Scottish Government said meeting the target “remains challenging” and more must be done to improve waiting times.

Janice Preston, of Macmillan Cancer Support in Scotland, has urged change and said the figures show a “struggling system which cannot meet demand”.

She said: “Any delay in receiving a cancer diagnosis and starting treatment causes a huge amount of worry and distress.

“We know that many people have complex emotions associated with what might have happened had they been diagnosed or treated sooner.

“Early diagnosis and timely treatment provides the best possible outcomes for people with cancer.

“These latest figures show a struggling system which cannot meet demand – despite the hard work of staff – and this must be addressed urgently.

“Improving access to psychological care and emotional support must also be a priority for cancer services, to deal with the effects of the pandemic on patients and their families, as well as helping individuals cope with the consequences of cancer and its treatment.”

The health spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said it was “completely unacceptable”.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “These startling figures should be a source of shame for Humza Yousaf and the SNP.

“It’s completely unacceptable that almost a quarter of patients are waiting more than two months to begin treatment following an urgent referral.

“When a patient comes to see me with signs of cancer, I act quickly because time is vital to their survival – yet these figures highlight a truly terrifying reality when it comes to cancer diagnosis in Scotland.”

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie said: “These catastrophic figures must be a wake-up call for the SNP Government, who have so far been posted missing as cancer services fall into chaos.

“Nicola Sturgeon promised to focus on recovery, but as cancer waiting times hit their worst point on record she is distracted by her constitutional obsession.

“The SNP have ignored warning after warning about the mounting pressure on cancer services, and there is no doubt that this shameful negligence will cost lives.”

Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said he was “appalled” that the First Minister is “focused on another attempt to break up the UK” on the day the figures are released.

He said: “All of this means patients are being failed, whilst their loved ones watch on anxiously, powerless to do anything.

“I am appalled that on the day Scotland announces its worst ever figures for cancer waits, Nicola Sturgeon is focused on another attempt to break up the UK. Where is that same urgency for patients in need?

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Limiting the impact of Covid-19 on cancer patients has remained a top priority throughout the pandemic. NHS Scotland remains focused on delivering high-quality care in the safest possible way to those who need it most.

“The 31-day standard has been consistently met throughout the Covid-19 pandemic with a median wait of four days.

“However, the 62-day standard remains challenging for this quarter with a median wait of 47 days and we must do more.

“We are investing in ways to support cancer waiting times improvements, including up-skilling nurses, investing in diagnostic tests focussing on the most challenging pathways to reduce backlogs.

“We have also established three pilot Early Cancer Diagnostic Centres (ECDC) to provide primary care with a new referral route for patients with non-specific symptoms of cancer and are supporting boards to implement the Framework for Effective Cancer Management to ensure patients receive timely care and treatment.”

There were 3,861 eligible referrals for the 62-day standard, a decrease of 6.8% from the previous quarter, but a 7.6% increase compared with quarter ending March 31, 2021.