The Government has announced plans to significantly improve cancer care in the UK and has set a target for 95% of patients with suspected cancer to be investigated and given the results within four weeks of being referred by a GP.
The target follows a recommendation from the Independent Cancer Taskforce which estimates some 11,000 deaths could be avoided every year with earlier diagnosis and treatment. Cancer survival rates in the UK have lagged behind other European countries for many years. It is thought this is mainly to be a result of later diagnosis of the disease.
The move will take until 2020 to implement at a cost of £300 million a year. In the meantime, a trial of the 95% target is to be run at five hospitals to evaluate whether the target is realistic.
Welcoming the news, Andrew Clayton of the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team explains: "This is a significant development. It is some years since the NHS introduced the "two-week rule" for patients to be seen by a specialist within two weeks of a GP referral for possible cancer. The system has undoubtedly improved cancer diagnosis but the UK still falls behind the survival rates of our near neighbours. Any steps to improve the speed with which patients are diagnosed are very welcome.
"But the value of early diagnosis is lost if not matched by prompt treatment and an increasing number of patients are currently not starting treatment within the target of 62 days of referral from their GP. More also needs to be done to improve public awareness. For example, recent statistics suggest that a million women missed cervical smear screens in 2014 and the rate of cervical cancer is increasing.
“Regardless of the efficiency of the process for referral, diagnosis and treatment, the system depends on patients taking screening programmes seriously and seeking advice from their GP as soon as they become concerned about the signs and symptoms.
"Any delays in investigations and follow-up appointments will affect how quickly a diagnosis is confirmed and treatment started. The earlier these are done, the better the likely outcome for the patient."