Facing a diagnosis of cancer is one of the most challenging health care issues patients around the world experience throughout a lifetime. For some individuals, however, getting clear answers on next steps for treatment is the most frustrating and potentially harmful part of the process. A recent report evaluating the wait times throughout hospitals in the UK has shown a glaring disparity in the time between diagnosis of cancer and a visit with a cancer specialist. Figures highlight more than 102,000 individuals were forced to wait more than two weeks to see a care specialist regarding a cancer diagnosis after their GP referred them.

The NHS develops targets for patient wait times throughout each of its hospitals and clinics, but in recent years, providers have been known to miss these marks. For cancer patients, no more than 14 days should pass between a referral to a cancer care specialist and the patient’s visit, and the target for this metric is 93%. Unfortunately, 25 our of 157 NHS trusts did not meet this necessary time frame, and the same rings true for the past three years. Patients face unnecessary risks when a plan for treatment is not provided in a timely fashion, not only to the detriment of their overall physical health but in relation to their emotional well-being, too.

What Should Take Place

Once an individual is suspected to have cancer, his or her GP refers them to a provider who specialises in that particular type of cancer so that adequate testing, a confirmed diagnosis, and a course of treatment can be delivered. Seeing this specialist within two weeks allows patients to have a clear understanding of their prognosis, as well as expectations of possible treatments that could improve that prognosis. When a delay in wait times between the referral and the specialist visit is a common occurrence, both patients and their family members are left in an uncomfortable limbo. Although the wait time figures are alarming, a leading cancer research organisation in the UK also found that treatment targets have experienced disturbing delays. Starting treating within 62 days after diagnosis is important to the health of the patient, but statistics show that only 79.9% of patients do so. This misses the 85% mark for treating cancer patients, and like the wait times, this has been the norm for the last few years. With more than 2,000 patients delayed longer than two months for treatment, and another 500 waiting more than three months, the NHS has a significant issue on its hands.

The extended wait times affecting patients recently suspected of having cancer as well as those with a confirmed diagnosis point to an underlying issue within the UK’s health system. Some speak to the staff shortages that have placed added pressure on the NHS, while others note budget cuts and lack of training for new providers. Altogether, the combination of these issues mixed with a growing patient population creates an environment where gaps between diagnosis and care are the norm. A representative from a leading UK specialist in medical negligence explains that when target wait times are missed, patients and their families suffer greatly. Not having clear answers adds to an already heavy burden of stress, and fear and frustration are the outcomes. Until a visit with a cancer specialist is complete, and a plan for treatment is set in motion, cancer patients hold little power over their health and well-being.

A Call to Action

Several patient advocacy groups alongside the UK government have committed to changing the landscape of the healthcare system when it comes missing the mark on wait times. By the year 2020, resources will be put in place to improve the time between a GP referral and seeing a cancer specialist so that patients can be given a good bill of health within 28 days or a diagnosis within the same time frame. A pilot program is set to begin this year spanning five NHS trusts focused on reducing wait times immediately. Meanwhile, for individuals who have already been diagnosed with cancer and need assistance in coping with the information, there are several organisations with ample resources aimed at providing the support and education cancer patients need.