Waiting for a sarcoma diagnosis

On diagnostic waiting times NHS England has revealed that cancer screening programmes and media campaigns have contributed to a 51 per cent increase in urgent suspected cancer referrals by GPs over the past four years.  This is a huge new diagnostic workload of some 45,000 referrals per quarter. This may indicate a rising GP suspicion rate, and that is very good news, but the number of patients getting an actual cancer diagnosis will be a relatively small percentage of that number. However, they all have to be seen.

The challenge for hospitals is reflected in national waiting times for diagnosis and for starting treatment which are all below the operational standard set by NHS England. This target is a concern for the NHS England Board, so it gets prioritized. The standard that 85% of patients should experience a maximum two-month wait from urgent GP referral to their first definitive treatment was 83.6% in Q3 2014/15. NHS England has taken this seriously and committed additional funding to the 30 Trusts with the worst performance.

I delved into the NHS data (http://www.hscic.gov.uk) and found that among rarer cancers the experience of sarcoma patients with regard to this target seemed to be within the acceptable range.

The increased referral numbers point to earlier diagnosis, which has been a target in the cancer community since 2007. It is impossible in the data to distinguish sarcoma from the whole body of data but we do know anecdotally from our sarcoma MDTs that the number of referrals has increased over the years and continues to do so.

We know that this is helped by Sarcoma UK awareness campaigns and those of a number of our MDTs who have been active in their own communities. A special credit is due to the Liverpool team who developed a distance-learning module for medical students, GPs and others wishing to know more about sarcoma. It was acredited by BMJ Learning and is available through them. Launched last May it has had over 4000 users. http://bmj.co/1bd4sVM

We can award a well done to our sarcoma MDTs. Together we are trying to raise awareness and the resulting greater pressure on diagnosis is being handled.

What challenges we may face after the election with such political uncertainty about the future of the NHS and varying degrees of commitment to the funding requirements Simon Stephens has put forward are essential, we shall have to see.