Faster diagnostic tests for cancer patients in latest NHS drive

Hospitals are being asked to work towards a 10-day turnaround when delivering diagnostic test results to patients who have received an urgent referral for suspected cancer, as part of new plans to see and treat people for cancer as early as possible.

This means hundreds of patients waiting to have cancer ruled out or diagnosed in some cases, are set to receive this news faster, helping to relieve anxieties or enabling treatment to start sooner.

In a letter sent to local health areas, NHS leaders are also asking teams to prioritise diagnostic tests like MRI scans for cancer in community diagnostic centres (CDCs) or to free up capacity for these cancer tests within hospitals by moving elective activity into the centres.

In February the NHS achieved the faster diagnosis standard for suspected cancer for the first time, with three quarters of those referred receiving a definitive diagnosis or all clear within 28 days – over 170,000 people (171,453) – ahead of the March 2024 target.

These ambitious plans also come on the back of significant progress in reducing the number of people waiting longest for treatment or to have their cancer ruled out – having brought the 62-day backlog down by almost 15,000 patients since the summer (19,027 on 19 March 2023 compared with 33,950 on 19 September 2022).

NHS staff have worked incredibly hard to bring down the backlog at the same time as managing consistently high demand for cancer services over the last two years – with up to one in four GP referrals a month for cancer, thanks to the success of public awareness campaigns and early diagnosis drives.

More people than ever before are getting seen for cancer – in the last year (March 2022 to Feb 2023) 470,000 more people were checked for cancer compared with the same period before the pandemic, and over nine in 10 patients started treatment within one month.

Progress also comes despite the impact of industrial action which has resulted in thousands of cancer appointments having to be re-scheduled.

This would not have been possible without new diagnostic capacity made available through community diagnostic centres (CDCs) – with 105 now open and offering a ‘one stop shop’ for tests and checks in local areas close to people’s homes.

Dame Cally Palmer, NHS National Director for Cancer, said: “It is a testament to the hard work of NHS staff that we are seeing and treating record numbers of patients for cancer, and have made significant progress bringing down the backlog and achieving the target for diagnosing three quarters of people within 28 days – all despite huge demand and pressures on the system.

“Fortunately, the vast majority of suspected cancer patients waiting for a diagnostic test will not have cancer, but for those waiting it can be a very anxious time, so we are asking trusts to aim for a ten day turnaround time between GP referral and tests results for patients – so we can get people the all-clear faster, or in some cases ensure patients diagnosed with cancer are able to start treatment sooner.

“Lives are saved when cancers are caught early and while we’re already diagnosing a higher proportion of cancers at an earlier stage than ever before – we want to ensure we’re making the absolute most of the diagnostic capacity in our community centres and hospitals.”

Minister Helen Whately said: “Catching cancer early saves lives which is why we’re prioritising early diagnosis and supporting the latest NHS drive to speed up the return of test results.

“We have also opened 100 community diagnostic centres and these one-stop-shops have delivered over 3.6 million additional tests, checks and scans. We remain focused on fighting cancer through prevention, diagnosis and treatment backed up by vital funding and research.

“We know there is more to do and our ambition is to diagnose 75% of cancers at an early stage by 2028 which will help save tens of thousands of lives for longer.”

Jane Lyons, Chief Executive of Cancer 52, said: “For the vast majority of patients whose tests show they don’t have cancer, ending what is a spell of extreme anxiety sooner will be a great relief, and for the roughly seven in 100 who are diagnosed with cancer, moving on from that period of uncertainty to being able to discuss next steps with doctors as quickly as possible is crucial.

“When we know record levels of people are being sent by their GPs for cancer tests, it’s good to see the NHS making clear these patients need to be prioritised.”

Prof Mike Osborn, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: “We welcome the announcement of support for pathology services which will help our members provide the quicker diagnoses that patients need. Pathologists have long asked for improvements in digital pathology and infrastructure to help them provide better patient care. We fully support this initiative and the fresh focus on pathology which it should provide will, we hope, make a real difference to patients.”