'Disgraceful' cancer treatment waiting times drop to worst on record

The number of patients in Scotland seen within target times fell to 71.7%, the lowest on record.

Waiting times for cancer treatments in Scotland have fallen to their worst on record, new figures have revealed.

Opposition politicians have branded the new figures “beyond disgraceful” amid calls for action from the Scottish Government.

Approximately 71.7% of eligible patients started treatment within the target of 62 days in the three months to December 31 last year.

The data, which comes from Health Protection Scotland, marks a decrease from the 75.1% recorded in the previous quarter.

It also indicates a 12% drop since the last full quarter before the pandemic in October to December 2019 when 83.7% of patients were seen within the target time.

The target states that 95% of eligible patients should wait no longer that 62 days from urgent suspicion of cancer referral to their first cancer treatment.

No health board met the target of 95% in the October to December 2022 quarter and the figure has not been met nationally since the end of 2012.

The number of patients referred has continued to increase, at 4,262 in October-December last year, up 2.3% on the previous quarter and 14.5% on the quarter ending December 31 2019.

Cancer charities called for action, with Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, Dr Sorcha Hume, saying it is “unacceptable that more than one in four people are waiting too long to be diagnosed and start cancer treatment”.

She added: “The top priority for the First Minister has to be publishing the new cancer strategy and ensuring that it is implemented quickly.”

Macmillan Cancer Support warned the “crisis is far from over”.

The charity’s Scotland head, Janice Preston, said: “Today’s figures show that things are getting worse and will be felt for years to come.

“It’s clear to see that every health board in Scotland is feeling the impact, from a struggling workforce, due to exhaustion and staff reaching retirement age, the consequence is people with cancer across the country are facing long waiting times.

“There’s no overall quick solution, but we need and deserve a system in Scotland that treats patients quicker and tackles the current delays.”

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “These horrendous figures lay bare the terrifying legacy of Humza Yousaf’s stewardship of our NHS. In every quarter during his time as health secretary, cancer waiting times continued to worsen.

“It is beyond disgraceful that almost a third of patients are not starting treatment within two months. That will only be having a devastating impact on their chances of survival.”

He called for health secretary Michael Matheson to announce a “real recovery plan for our NHS – and (ensure) every cancer patient begins treatment as soon as possible”.

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: “These are the worst cancer statistics on record, with thousands of Scots being failed by the SNP.

“Not a single health board is meeting the government’s 62 day own cancer target – that is shameful. After ten years and four failed SNP cancer plans, it is clear that this is a government out of ideas and endangering lives.”

Liberal Democrat Scottish affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “This SNP/Green Government have let down everyone in Scotland who has ever had to hear a cancer diagnosis or lost someone they love. Humza Yousaf owes us all an apology and has serious questions to answer about how he has allowed this to happen.”

Figures from Public Health Scotland also reveal performance of second cancer treatment targets also fell.

The standard stipulates 95% of all patients should wait no more than 31 days from decision to treat to first cancer treatment.

In the last quarter of 2022 94.1% of patients started treatment within the 31 days, a slight drop on 94.4% in the previous quarter.

The number of patients referred within the 31-day standard increased 4.7% between quarter three and quarter four of 2022 to 6,757.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, NHS Lothian, NHS Fife, NHS Grampian, NHS Highland and NHS Lanarkshire all failed to meet this target, with the rest of Scotland’s health boards hitting it.

Health secretary Matheson said: “Today’s figures show that our NHS, despite the impact of the pandemic, is treating more cancer patients on 31 and 62-day pathways than ever before.

“More than 900 additional patients were treated in this quarter alone, compared to the same time pre-pandemic. Despite this increase in numbers, the median wait from decision to treat to first treatment is five days.

“Cancer remains a national priority for the NHS and Scottish Government which is why we will publish a new ten-year strategy in spring 2023.

“We are committed to finding cancer earlier and faster which is why we have established a network of urology diagnostic hubs, are investing in optimal cancer diagnostic pathways and activating additional rapid cancer diagnostic services across Scotland.”