‘Staggering’ backlog of missed cancer diagnoses could hit  50,000

A charity has sounded the alarm over almost 50,000 “missing” cancer diagnoses, with warnings the NHS may not cope when growing numbers come forward for checks. 

Research by Macmillan Cancer Support shows a “staggering” backlog of cases that have yet to be diagnosed, with concern that services are buckling even before the unmet need is addressed. 

The charity calculated the number of so-called missed diagnoses by assessing data from across the four nations of the UK and finding the difference between expected and observed cancer diagnoses.

It estimated that more than 47,000 people have “missed” a diagnosis in the UK since the first lockdown. 

Previous studies have estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 diagnoses had been missed during the pandemic. 

But the new data suggests a still higher figure, with concern that too many people who should have been diagnosed in the past 18 months have yet to have symptoms checked. 

Next week, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is expected to announce a recovery plan for almost six million people on NHS waiting lists, to attempt to prioritise the most urgent cases. 

Macmillan Cancer Support said the scale of the cancer care backlog was “still to hit the NHS”, as it warned that further disruption from Covid-19 this winter could see the number of missing diagnoses increase further.

It also suggested that the early signs of improvement in clearing the backlog over summer “may have stalled”.

Macmillan said it was “deeply concerned” about how cancer services would cope when the patients eventually received their diagnoses.

Thousands face delay and disruption 

It raised concern about a “severe shortage” of cancer nurses and estimated that the NHS in England would need to work at 110 per cent capacity for 13 months in a row to catch up with the number of people who should have started cancer treatment since March 2020.

Cancer referrals have fallen during the pandemic

Steven McIntosh, executive director of advocacy and communications at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Nearly two years into the pandemic, there is still a mountain of almost 50,000 people who are missing a cancer diagnosis.

“Thousands more are already facing delays and disruption as they go through treatment.

“While hard-working healthcare professionals continue to do all they can to diagnose and treat patients on time, they are fighting an uphill battle.

“Cancer patients are stuck, waiting in a system that doesn’t have the capacity to treat them fast enough, let alone deal with the backlog of thousands who have yet to come forward.”

“The Government has promised an NHS Elective Recovery Plan. This must show how it will tackle spiralling pressures on cancer services.

“It has never been more crucial to boost NHS capacity to treat and support everybody with cancer, so people receive the critical care they need now and in the years to come.”

Pandemic likely to fuel an extra 10,000 cancer deaths

In September, a study by University College London said the pandemic is likely to fuel an extra 10,000 cancer deaths.

It follows concern that problems accessing GP care, and government messages to “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”, has meant many symptoms that should have been checked were never investigated.

Analysis of NHS statistics by the Institute of Public Policy Research in September suggested that the backlog could take a decade to clear. 

Health officials have said that patients will be able to book their own hospital appointments as part of efforts to tackle record waiting lists.

The proposals, drawn up by Sir Jim Mackey, who has been appointed to advise NHS England on the elective recovery plan, would mean those on waiting lists would be able to contact hospitals directly, via the NHS app or by telephone. 

But millions of routine follow-up appointments are likely to be axed, in an attempt to prioritise those most in need. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Cancer diagnosis and treatment is an absolute priority and nearly half a million people were checked for cancer in August and September this year – some of the highest numbers ever. 

“We remain committed to delivering our long-term plan for tackling cancer and have backed the NHS with record investment, including £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years to deliver an extra nine million checks, scans and operations for patients across the country.”

An NHS spokesman added: “Throughout the pandemic, cancer has been a priority for the NHS and diagnosis and treatment numbers have been back at pre-pandemic levels since the spring, with record numbers of people being referred for investigation over the last six months.”

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