The reality is that cancer is on the increase and Cancer Research UK suggests that there has been a 30% rise in the number of patients in the UK diagnosed with cancer since the 1970s. However, at the same time as the number of cancer patients increases, research and technology is making great strides in treatment, with statistics suggesting that for the first time more than 50% of patients diagnosed with cancer are surviving. This rate has increased from 24% to 50% over the same 40 year period.
Survival is not all about advances in treatment though. A significant aspect of prognosis for cancer patients is the timing of diagnosis. While early diagnosis in any form of cancer is always the aim, in some cancers, the nature and progression can mean that early diagnosis makes all the difference between successful treatment and survival and a poor prognosis. The Government and various cancer charities work hard to promote awareness and produce guidelines for medical practitioners and patients, but there is no doubt that a number of people are still diagnosed much too late in the day. For some of those, the opportunity for early diagnosis has been missed because of unacceptable failures in their medical care.
The Penningtons Manches specialist clinical negligence team has individuals who specialise in cases involving a delay in diagnosis of cancer. Often they talk to people in order to reassure them that there were no failures in their care or that any delay is very unlikely to have made a difference to their treatment and outcome. However, over the years the team has seen certain trends in medical care where patients are receiving substandard care resulting in a delay in diagnosis and a much worse prognosis than should have been the case, for example:
The impact of any delay depends entirely on the type of cancer, its size, nature and stage at the time it should have been diagnosed and at the actual time of diagnosis. Generally, the earlier that cancer is detected and treated, the better the outcome will be. The longer it is left untreated, the larger it becomes, making surgical treatment more difficult and the risk of it spreading throughout the body greater.
Often a delay (negligent or otherwise) is only a matter of months and the impact on treatment and the outcome is minimal, so patients should not automatically be concerned that a delay will have an adverse impact.
Anyone considering bringing a claim for a delay in diagnosis of cancer needs to carefully consider that while dealing with a diagnosis itself is hard, bringing a claim can add additional pressures, concerns and a focus on the negative. Potential reasons to consider a claim include a wish or need to get an independent opinion on care provided or, for those who now have a poor prognosis, to provide for their future and for the future of their families.
Philippa Luscombe, partner in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, explains: “It is very important for us to use our knowledge of these cases in order to give good advice not just about whether there are grounds for a claim, but also what it will involve and the pros and cons of pursuing it. These cases in particular require careful assessment and honest advice so as not to make a difficult position worse. We frequently speak to people who think that they are out of time to make a claim, but are in fact not. They are often aware that there is a three year time limit for bringing a claim which runs from the date of negligence, but when the negligence results in a delay in diagnosis, most or all of that three year period can be exhausted by the time the diagnosis is made. In these cases claimants are allowed to treat their three year period as running from the first date at which they could reasonably have suspected failings in their care having an adverse effect on them or, often, the date of actual diagnosis. In the case of a claimant who dies before bringing a claim or during a claim, in many instances the three year period is regarded as starting from the date of death. Therefore there is no time pressure in these cases and they can be looked at further down the line once an individual’s treatment has progressed or prognosis is known.
“Our clinical negligence team is always happy to talk to people concerned about a delayed diagnosis of cancer on an informal, no charge and no obligation basis. We often just provide advice on charities to speak to for support or on making a complaint and will not push anyone into making a claim of this type given the sensitivities involved.”