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Almost one in four UK cancer patients do not start treatment on time

By Jane Kirby, Press Association Health Editor

Almost one in four patients with cancer do not start treatment on time - the worst performance on record, figures show.

New data from NHS England shows that the health service has missed its key cancer target for more than 1,000 days, while A&E performance is also at a record low.

Hospitals are meant to start cancer treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral, with the target stating that 85% of patients should start treatment within this time frame.

But figures for January show the worst performance on record, with just 76.2% of cancer patients treated within the target.

The last time the target was met was in December 2015.

The results come as the Royal College of Surgeons warned that hospitals are continuing to struggle to reduce long waiting lists for planned treatment.

Some 227,569 patients have been waiting more than six months for treatment, with 36,857 others waiting more than nine months for treatment, figures show.

The College said this is a 31% and 39% increase respectively on the same period last year.

In January, 86.7% of patients were seen within 18 weeks, against a 92% target.

The number of people waiting for treatment is at its highest level since October, with 4.16 million people in January waiting to start treatment.

NHS England is currently reviewing NHS targets and could scrap both the 18-week target and the four-hour A&E target.

Data for A&E released today shows that only 84.2% of patients in February were seen in four hours, the lowest proportion on record.

The four-hour target has not been met since July 2015 and some experts say it is unlikely the NHS could ever hit it again.

Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said of waiting lists for planned treatment: "The backlog of patients waiting to start treatment continues to grow.

"There are now over 100,000 more patients waiting longer than 18 weeks to start treatment when compared with the same time last year.

"While we support NHS England's plans to pilot new targets and measurements that could improve care, changing targets will not solve the underlying challenges our health service faces.

"With the worst of winter now hopefully behind us, there is an urgent need for a plan to deal with the increasing backlog of patients on the planned care waiting list and we will work with NHS England to bring this about.

"Part of this plan must be a commitment to increase hospital bed capacity."

Professor John Appleby, chief economist at the Nuffield Trust said: "Today's figures are the worst performance against the four-hour A&E target since records started and the number of patients waiting on trolleys is creeping above levels seen during the 'Beast from the East' storm last February.

"In January, almost a quarter of cancer patients waited longer than two months to start treatment following a GP urgent referral, which is a sharp and concerning spike compared to previous months.

"These measures show the sheer weight of pressure that NHS staff are facing on a daily basis and will understandably worry patients at a very difficult time.

"We're in favour of testing the radical overhaul of A&E targets announced by NHS England because there is a risk that the current one is driving poor behaviours.

"But it will be hard for managers to implement them and for the public to have faith that this isn't just lowering the bar while queues continue to go out of the door of A&E. In short, it is hard to fix the ship's steering in stormy waters."

Dr Fran Woodard, executive director of policy and impact at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "January 2019 marks five years since the 62-day cancer target was first missed and despite the best efforts of hard working NHS staff, more than 127,000 people have been left waiting too long to start vital treatment throughout that time."

An NHS spokeswoman said: "More people than ever before are coming forward for cancer checks, with a quarter of a million more people getting checked for cancer this year and thousands more being treated within the two month target.

"NHS England is investing an additional £10 million this year to treat extra people and the NHS Long Term Plan sets out a range of ambitious measures to catch more cancers earlier, which will save thousands of lives every year."

She said almost a quarter of a million more people have been seen and treated within four hours in A&E this winter compared to last year.

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