'Urgent investment' needed to battle cancer treatment backlog, charity warns


It could take more than a decade to clear the cancer treatment backlog, a report has suggested - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The government needs to "urgently invest" in cancer services, a charity has warned after a new report suggested it could take more than a decade to clear the treatment backlog in England. 

The coronavirus pandemic has taken such a big toll that an estimated 19,500 people in England have not been diagnosed with cancer that should have been due to missed referrals, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPS) think tank and the CF health consultancy.

Their new study calculated that even if "stretched" hospitals could achieve 5% more treatments and procedures than before the pandemic, it will still take until 2033 to clear the cancer treatment "missing patients backlog".

If that figure could be pushed up to 15% 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% drop in endoscopies, a 25% drop in MRI scans and a 10% drop in CT scans than expected, the study said.

Tom Carter, partnership manager in Suffolk and Essex for Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is a sad reality that tens of thousands of people are missing a cancer diagnosis because of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to cancer services.

"Sadly, it is very likely that more people may now discover they have cancer at a later stage. Not only does this reduce a person’s chance of survival, but a late diagnosis can also cause serious emotional and psychological distress.

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“A cancer workforce that was already exhausted and overstretched before the health crisis is now contending with a surge in caseloads as more people come into the NHS for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“If our health service is to get the backlog in cancer treatment and diagnosis cleared, and deliver the consistently high quality care and support people need long-term, it is vital that the government urgently invests further in cancer services, including the guaranteed use of additional private sector capacity.”


Ipswich Hospital said cancer care has remained a priority - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

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% lower than expected). 

A total of 187,000 fewer chemotherapy treatments (7% lower than expected) took place as well as 15,000 fewer radiotherapy treatments (13% lower than expected).

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

The report estimated that the number of cancers diagnosed while still highly curable (stage one and two) fell from 44% before the pandemic to 41% last year.

The study said deaths could be prevented if hospitals are able to do more, which can only be achieved with more cash for new equipment and more staff. 

The region's hospitals said they continued to "prioritise" cancer care during the pandemic and urged anyone with concerns to contact their GP. 

Neill Moloney, managing director and deputy chief executive at Ipswich Hospital. Picture: ANDY ABBOT

Neill Moloney, deputy chief executive of ESNEFT - Credit: Andy Abbott

Neill Moloney, deputy chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Colchester and Ipswich hospitals, said: “We have continued to treat patients for non-COVID-19 reasons in our hospitals and in the community throughout the pandemic – including all urgent cancer treatment.

"Our teams continue to prioritise cancer care and are working hard to make sure waiting times are kept to a minimum.

“If anyone is worried about symptoms which could be due to cancer, please don’t delay. Contact your GP and if you are asked to come to hospital for tests, please keep your appointment – we are here to see and treat you safely.”

The accident took place outside West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The accident took place outside West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

A spokesman for West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We continued to prioritise and deliver treatment for urgent and emergency procedures throughout the pandemic, including for cancer.

"Our teams are working hard to treat all our patients as soon as possible, based on greatest clinical need, and anyone with concerns about their health can contact 111 online by phone for advice on the best way to get help.”