Beating bowel cancer together

Two in five patients in England waiting too long for bowel cancer tests

Thursday 8 July 2021

More than 40% of people referred for tests which can help to diagnose bowel cancer in England are waiting longer than six weeks, figures published by NHS England show today.

The numbers of people waiting for an endoscopy is more than five times higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Of the almost 90,000 people on the waiting list for investigations in May 2021, 41% (36,913 people) were waiting more than six weeks for an endoscopy (colonoscopy or flexi-sigmoidoscopy, which can diagnose bowel cancer), with more than a quarter of the total (26%, or 23,458 people) waiting more than 13 weeks.

To compare, before the pandemic 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.

Most of those waiting won't have bowel cancer, but we know that almost a quarter of patients are diagnosed with the disease every year through this routine GP referral.

The figures also show 10% (3,800 people) of patients who need urgent bowel cancer tests, and who should be seen within two weeks of a referral for suspected bowel cancer, were waiting longer than 14 days in May 2021.

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.

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, says: "Many people have been left in limbo, not knowing if they have bowel cancer because of disruption to screening and tests caused by the pandemic. Bowel cancer is the UK's second biggest cancer killer, but it's treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early, and it's tragic that some patients will face poorer outcomes as a result of having to wait too long for tests and treatment.

"The NHS has worked incredibly hard to continue delivering cancer services under great strain, but this long endoscopy backlog needs to be dealt with, and quickly. We've seen a very slight improvement on the number of people waiting for tests over the last month, but the Government must urgently provide NHS England with additional resources needed to increase both workforce and equipment to bring this under control and meet future demand."

  • Read more about how we plan to tackle the endoscopy crisis in our End the Capacity Crisis campaign
  • Watch our new animation to get the key facts about bowel cancer
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