Posted: Wed 28th Feb 2024

’50/50 chance’ of cancer patients in Wales starting treatment on time, says leading charity for people living in or visiting the Wrexham area

A leading charity has hit out at the Welsh Government after new figures revealed that cancer patients have almost a ’50/50 chance’ of their treatment starting on time.

Throughout 2023 just 55.5 per cent cancer patients started their treatment within the 62 days target time.

The figures, released last week by the Welsh Government, are 0.7 percentage points lower than 2022 – making them the worst cancer waiting times performance on record in Wales.

But the figures in 2022 – which saw 56.2 per cent of people were began their treatment within 62 days – are still well below the 75 per cent of patients starting treatment within 62 days (without suspensions) of first being suspected of cancer.

The Welsh Government’s planned care recovery plan established a new target of 80 per cent, to be reached by 2026.

But these targets have never been met

According to Macmillan Cancer Care an interim recovery target that cancer diagnosis and treatment would be undertaken within 62 days for 70 per cent of people by March 2023 was also missed.

The Welsh Government figures also show that last December 58 per cent (930 out of 1,603) of pathways started their first definitive treatment within 62 days of first being suspected of cancer.

Whilst this was 4.5 percentage points higher than the previous month and 2.7 percentage points higher than December 2022, it still means that 673 people in Wales were left waiting too long for their treatment to begin.

For some cancer types, performance remains even more concerning.

In December 2023 just 28.1 per cent of people with gynaecological cancer, 39.7 per cent of people with urological cancer and 45 per cent of people with lower gastrointestinal cancer started their treatment on time.

Richard Pugh, Head of Partnerships at Macmillan Cancer Support, said that behind the figures are “thousands of lives that have been turned upside down.”

He added that the data “confirms the devastating truth that last year cancer waiting times were the worst on record in Wales with almost a 50/50 chance of people’s treatment starting on time.

“We are especially concerned about the ongoing delays for patients with gynaecological and urological cancer as month after month these targets are being missed by a mile,” said Richard Pugh.

“The Welsh Government set out an ambition to treat 80 per cent of people with cancer on time by 2026, but this ambition looks increasingly impossible to achieve.

“Exhausted NHS staff are doing the best that they can, but they are working under unbearable pressures.

“There is only one way out of this mess and that’s through government action.

“The Welsh Government has said that cancer is a priority but now we need to see the commitments made in the Wales Cancer Improvement Plan come to life so that people with cancer get the timely and quality care they urgently need. The time for action is now.”

The Welsh Government figures coincide with the release of new data from Cancer Research which shows that the UK is lagging behind in treatment times when compared to to other countries.

For more than 10 years a multidisciplinary group of experts, including academics, clinicians and data experts, from the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP) have been reporting on the variation in cancer survival between countries.

The study found that “countries with better cancer outcomes typically had higher use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and shorter waits to start treatment.”

For example “people living in Norway and Australia started chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the quickest time and had the highest five-year net survival for stage three colon cancer.”

In the UK the average time to start chemotherapy in the study period was shortest in England (48 days) and longest in Scotland (65 days).

Northern Ireland had the shortest average time to start radiotherapy (53 days). Wales (81 days) and Scotland (79 days) had the longest.

It is estimated that four in 10 cancer patients in the UK will require radiotherapy as part of their treatment.

Dr John Butler, clinical lead for the ICBP said that a “lower use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the UK could impact people’s chances of survival, especially for older patients.”

However according to Cancer Research “while some cancer patients need time to prepare for treatment, waiting too long can exacerbate their stress and anxiety levels, and for some patients mean their cancer can keep growing.”

The organisation says that the delays to begin treatment in the UK “are partly a result of the UK Government’s lack of long-term planning on cancer in recent decades.”

This is combined with “workforce and capacity pressures across the UK health system.”

The charity is now urging the UK Government to work to improve cancer treatment and patient outcomes.

Michelle Mitchell, the charity’s chief executive, said: “The UK should be striving for world-leading outcomes.

“All cancer patients, no matter where they live, deserve to receive the highest quality care. But this research shows that UK patients are treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy less often than comparable countries.

“When it comes to treating cancer, timing really matters. Behind these statistics are people waiting anxiously to begin treatment that is key to boosting their chances of survival.”

You can view the findings in full on the Cancer Research website here.

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