Targets that ensure patients see a specialist within two weeks of being urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer could be scrapped, with a charity calling news of the potential change “ominous and deeply worrying”.
It comes after new data revealed cancer wait times in England remain well below targets set by the Government and NHS.
The new plans, known as the Faster Diagnosis Standard, propose that patients in England who have been urgently referred should have cancer ruled out or receive a diagnosis within 28 days.
A consultation on the blueprint started last year and said the current two-week wait sets no expectation of when patients should receive test results or have a confirmed diagnosis.
According to the BBC, the outcome of the consultation is set to be announced in the coming days, although implementing the changes will be subject to a final sign-off by Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
On Monday, Mr Barclay refused to comment on the news, telling BBC Breakfast: “There is a consultation at the moment, the story relates to a leak, and ministers don’t comment on leaks.”
It is hoped the new targets will help pick up cancer faster.
Under the Faster Diagnosis Standard, patients who have been urgently referred, have symptoms of breast cancer, or have been picked up through screening, should have cancer ruled out or receive a diagnosis within 28 days.
Those with cancer should receive their first treatment within a month of a decision to treat after diagnosis – known as the 31-day decision to treatment standard – while those who have been diagnosed will start treatment within nine weeks from the date of referral, known as the 62-day referral to treatment standard.
However, oncologist Professor Pat Price, who is co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, branded news of the potential new targets “ominous and deeply worrying”.
She added: “The performance against the current targets is shockingly bad and has been for many, many months now, deteriorating over years.
“While we agree chasing too many targets can be disruptive and divert resources away from the main patient 62-day treatment target, poor performance is not as a result of how we are measuring it.
“The clear and simple truth is that we are not investing enough in cancer treatment capacity and getting the whole cancer pathway working.”
New figures published by NHS England on Thursday showed cancer wait times remain well below targets set by the Government and health service.
In June, 261,006 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England, up 6% on 245,595 in May and 13% year-on-year from 231,868 in June 2022.
Some 80.5% of patients saw a specialist within two weeks, down from 80.8% in May but below the target of 93%, which was last met in May 2020.
A total of 59.2% who had their first treatment in June after an urgent GP referral had waited less than two months, up slightly from 58.7% in May but below the target of 85%.
Meanwhile, 73.5% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days, up from 71.3% the previous month.
The NHS elective recovery plan sets a goal of March 2024 for 75% of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer to be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.
Prof Price added: “Without a radical new cancer plan we will just be making some modest headway in identifying cancer patients quicker, but then adding those newly diagnosed patients to a long and potentially lethal waiting list for treatment.
“This is a road to continuing poor outcomes including unnecessary deaths.”
On Thursday, Naser Turabi, Cancer Research UK’s director of evidence and implementation, said current missed targets “represent years of underinvestment” by the Government.
“These unacceptable waits can be turned around with political leadership on cancer,” he added.
“To accelerate research, boost our cancer workforce, and diagnose more cancers earlier there must be long-term funding and a clear strategy from the UK Government. Without bold action, more people will miss out on lifesaving services.”