NHS England cancer targets to be cut by two-thirds from Autumn, government confirms

Doctors and nurses working at a NHS hospital.
Credit: PA

NHS England cancer targets are to be streamlined, moving from ten performance standards to three from October, the government has confirmed.

The new guidelines will move away from the "outdated" two-week wait target, the government said, which will be replaced with the Faster Diagnosis Standard.

The government said it hopes the shake-up will help doctors to diagnose and treat cancer faster, and that GPs "will still refer people with suspected cancer in the same way", but more focus will be placed on diagnosing or ruling cancer out.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national NHS medical director, said: "The NHS is already catching more cancers at an earlier stage, when they are easier to treat, than ever before and the Faster Diagnosis Standard will allow us to build on this excellent progress.

"The updated ambitions will mean the NHS can be even more focused on outcomes for patients, rather than just appointment times, and it’s yet another of example of the NHS bringing cancer care into the modern era of care."

What is the government proposing?

Currently, anyone who is referred urgently by their GP with suspected cancer must be seen by a specialist within 14 days.

The Faster Diagnosis Standard was initially introduced in April 2021 but has been under "rigorous consultation", according to the government.

The standard aims to diagnose 75% of people with cancer at an early stage, as well as cutting down the time between referral and diagnosis to reduce anxiety for patients.

Additionally, it supports a goal outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan - to have 55,000 more people surviving cancer for five years or longer by 2028.

The 10 current targets will be consolidated into the following:

  • The 28-day Faster Diagnosis Standard, under which patients with suspected cancer urgently referred by a GP, screening programme or other route should be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within four weeks.

  • The 62-day referral to treatment to ensure patients who have been referred and diagnosed with cancer should start treatment within that timeframe.

  • The 31-day decision to treat - patients with a cancer diagnosis, and who have had a decision made on their first or subsequent treatment, should start it within 31 days.

Data published a week ago by NHS England revealed that 261,006 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in June, up 6% on 245,595 in May and 13% year on year from 231,868 in June 2022.

However, figures showed cancer wait times remain well below targets set by the government and NHS.

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Of the 261,006 patients, 80.5% saw a specialist within two weeks, down from 80.8% in May but below the target of 93%, which was last met in May 2020.

A total of 59.2% who had their first treatment in June following an urgent GP referral had waited less than two months, up slightly from 58.7% in May but below the target of 85%.

Health minister Will Quince said the "biggest factor in people surviving cancer is the stage at which they are diagnosed".

He added: "We have listened to the advice from clinical experts and NHS England to reform cancer standards which will speed up diagnosis for patients."

However, oncologist Professor Pat Price, co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign and chairwoman of charity Radiotherapy UK, said that, while "simplification is welcome", targets should be higher.

"The Faster Diagnosis Standard is set at only 75%. This needs to be much higher, at around 95%, if we are to get patients through the cancer pathway on time," she said.

"While great for reassuring patients without cancer, this may not help patients with cancer start their treatment in time."

Prof Price also warned the announcement could be "adding to a false narrative" that steps are being taken to tackle "the current disastrous cancer performance".

"The only measure that will 'move the dial' is the development and implementation of a radical new plan backed up with smart investment in people and kit," she said.

On Monday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of "moving the goalposts".

He said: "I want swifter diagnosis, of course I do - both for the individuals concerned and obviously for the health service.

"The way to do that is to have a health service that's fit for the future. We haven't got one. I've set out a plan for that, which involves people, technology and reform."

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