'NHS cancer treatment backlog could take more than a decade to clear'

Study finds hospitals could clear the waiting list next year if they increased procedures by 15 per cent

Medics in an intensive care ward in Surrey, England. Getty
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

It could take more than a decade to clear the cancer treatment backlog in England, a report has suggested.

The pandemic has taken such a toll that an estimated 19,500 people who should have had cancer diagnosed have not because of missed referrals, the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank and the CF health consultancy said.

Their study calculated that even if “stretched” hospitals could achieve 5 per cent more treatments and procedures than before the pandemic, it would still take until 2033 to clear the “missing patients backlog”.

If that figure could be pushed up to 15 per cent, then backlogs could be cleared by next year, the report suggests.

One of the main issues in cancer care is around diagnosis, with the pandemic leading to a 37 per cent drop in endoscopies, a 25 per cent drop in MRI scans and a 10 per cent drop in CT scans than expected, the study said.

While the number of people who need cancer treatment has not changed, the research shows that during the height of the pandemic (March 2020 to February 2021):

– 369,000 fewer people than expected were referred to a specialist with suspected cancer (15 per cent lower than expected),

– 187,000 fewer chemotherapy treatments (7 per cent lower than expected),

– 15,000 fewer radiotherapy treatments (13 per cent lower than expected).

“Behind these statistics are thousands of people for whom it will now be too late to cure their cancer," the report said.

“We estimate that the number of cancers diagnosed while they are still highly curable (stage one and two) fell from 44 per cent before to pandemic to 41 per cent last year.”

The study suggests that treating 90 per cent of these people when they are eventually diagnosed could mean the backlog in chemotherapy and radiotherapy could take until 2028 and 2033 respectively to clear.

But deaths could be prevented if hospitals were able to do more, which can only be achieved with more funds for new equipment and more staff, it said.

Researchers said the government should not just allow pre-pandemic levels of care to return.

They said the UK has poor cancer outcomes compared to similar countries, the lowest numbers of CT and MRI scanners per capita in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and workforce shortages across all cancer services.

Updated: September 24, 2021, 1:12 AM