Beating bowel cancer together

Waiting times soar for bowel cancer diagnostic tests

Thursday 10 September 2020

The number of people waiting for tests that diagnose bowel cancer has sky-rocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, with almost 60% of patients waiting longer than the six-week wait target set by the NHS, according to waiting time figures released today. 

Despite cancer service restoration being an NHS priority following disruptions caused by COVID-19, the figures remain shockingly high and present a worrying picture for patients. Around 40% of people waited more than 13 weeks to have tests to investigate bowel cancer symptoms in July, more than double the target waiting time.

At the peak in May, 67% of those referred for a colonoscopy or flexi sigmoidoscopy – procedures which examine areas of the colon - were not seen within the six-week target, which is over 62,000 people. This is a dramatic increase from the start of the year, when 15% of people were waiting for longer than six weeks, and February, when the figure was 10%.

The statistics also show that urgent suspected cancer referrals (known as the two week wait) dropped by more than half between March and April, when the UK went into lockdown. Of those who were referred, 12% of people who need to be seen urgently by a specialist are waiting longer than the two-week NHS target.

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive at Bowel Cancer UK, said: "These figures are incredibly alarming. Bowel cancer services were already stretched at the start of the year, with too many people not being seen for urgent investigations, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit hard.

"Bowel cancer is the UK's fourth most common cancer and the second biggest cancer killer, but it's treatable and curable, especially if it's caught early. The huge endoscopy backlog we're now facing as a result of COVID-19 needs to be dealt with, and quickly.

"We're calling on the Government to address the endoscopy capacity crisis as a priority to ensure even more people aren't diagnosed with bowel cancer at a later stage, when their chances of survival can be significantly cut."

The two-week wait figures also reflect our concerns that people were not visiting their GP for advice during lockdown. The figures show a steep decline in GP referrals for urgent suspected cancer referral, from 35,888 in March to 13,389 in May. By June this increased to 25,933 which suggests people are going to their GP more. This is a positive change, and does not appear to have contributed to a large increase of patients waiting longer than the two week target.

The figures published by NHS England on Thursday 10 September are for routine referrals for diagnostic tests. Patients who are referred via this route should be seen within six weeks of being referred. Under the NHS Constitution all patients have a right to be seen within maximum waiting time standards. Routine referrals are for patients who don't quality for an urgent referral or are not suspected of having cancer by their GP.

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