Beating bowel cancer together

Tens of thousands of patients in England waiting longer than six weeks for bowel cancer tests

Thursday 15 April 2021

The number of people in England waiting longer than six weeks for tests that can help to diagnose bowel cancer has increased by nearly eight-fold compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to figures published today by NHS England.

These tests look at areas of the bowel and can help diagnose whether someone has bowel cancer – the UK's second biggest cancer killer.

Of the more than 91,600 people on the waiting list for investigations in February 2021, nearly half (49% or 45,173 people) were waiting more than six weeks for an endoscopy test (colonoscopy or flexi-sigmoidoscopy), with almost a third of the total (31% or 28,856 people) waiting more than 13 weeks.

Many of these people waiting for an endoscopy test won't be diagnosed with bowel cancer, but we know that almost a quarter of bowel cancer patients are diagnosed every year through this routine GP referral.

To compare, in February 2020, 10% of patients (7,054) waiting for a colonoscopy or flexi-sigmoidoscopy had to wait longer than six weeks and 3% (2,218) waited longer than 13 weeks.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on bowel cancer services, and endoscopies for all but emergency and essential procedures were initially paused due to the pandemic, leading to a growing backlog in patients waiting to be seen.

A separate measure for urgent cancer tests, which says patients should be seen within two weeks of a referral for suspected bowel cancer, showed more than 2,335 people (7%) had to wait more than two weeks for these tests in February 2021.

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, says: "This is a clear 'red flag' that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on endoscopy services, with patients bearing the brunt as they are being left desperately waiting for tests that are needed to diagnose bowel cancer.

"The NHS has worked hard to deliver tests during a very difficult time when it was under great strain, but this long endoscopy backlog needs to be dealt with, and quickly. The Government should urgently provide NHS England with the resources to increase both workforce and equipment to bring this under control and meet future demand.

"Bowel cancer is the UK's fourth most common cancer and the second biggest cancer killer, but it's treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early. Anybody with symptoms should contact their GP as quickly as possible for advice."

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