Thousands of people referred for urgent cancer checks every month are set to be diagnosed and treated sooner, as the NHS reforms its cancer standards to reflect what matters most to patients and to align with modern clinical practice.
Developed by clinical experts and supported by leading cancer charities, there will be three cancer standards, which combine all of the previous standards and cover additional patients.
The NHS currently has ten performance standards for cancer, including the Faster Diagnosis Standard introduced in April 2021, but following rigorous consultation and engagement, the government has agreed these targets will be consolidated into three key standards:
- the 28-Day Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS) which means patients with suspected cancer who are referred for urgent cancer checks from a GP, screening programme or other route should be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days
- the 62-day referral to treatment standard which means patients who have been referred for suspected cancer from any source and go on to receive a diagnosis should start treatment within 62 days of their referral
- the 31-day decision to treat to treatment standard which means patients who have a cancer diagnosis, and who have had a decision made on their first or subsequent treatment, should then start that treatment within 31 days.
In line with the recommendation of the 2015 Independent Cancer Taskforce, government has approved that the outdated two-week wait target will be replaced with the Faster Diagnosis Standard from October.
GPs will still refer people with suspected cancer in the same way, but the focus will rightly be on getting people diagnosed or cancer ruled out within 28 days, rather than simply getting a first appointment. In the last year, over two million patients with suspected cancer were diagnosed or received the all-clear within 28 days.
The faster diagnosis standard means NHS services can embrace greater use of new innovations and technology for diagnosing and treating patients. It supports newer ways of testing where patients with suspected cancer do not necessarily need an appointment first, such as straight to test pathways, remote consultations, and advances in technology like using artificial intelligence and teledermatology to help diagnose skin cancers from photographs in a matter of seconds.
The three agreed standards, which will come into effect from October, have been identified as the best measures to ensure patients are being seen and treated as quickly as possible, and to provide a clear focus for NHS trusts delivering vital care.
Professor Peter Johnson, NHS National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “It is a testament to the hard work of NHS staff that we are seeing and treating record numbers of patients for cancer, and diagnosing people at an earlier stage than ever before, giving them the best chance of survival. On top of delivering record checks and treatments, staff have also made significant progress bringing down the longest waits, but we want to ensure even more patients are being diagnosed and treated as early as possible following referral. These modified standards will provide a clear focus for how to achieve this, and the faster diagnosis standard already being used across the country will mean more patients will benefit from a speedier diagnosis or the all clear within a month, helping to relieve anxieties or enabling treatment to start sooner.”
Alongside the modified standards, the NHS is setting out a roadmap to recovering performance and achieving these standards of care, with a strong focus on treating people within 62 days of a referral and more ambitious targets for meeting the 28-day faster diagnosis standards over the next two years.
The NHS has made significant progress in reducing the number of people waiting longest for treatment or to have their cancer ruled out by 13,000 patients since last summer (21,000 now compared with 33,950 on 19 September 2022). Now the covid backlog has been significantly reduced and the NHS is on track to continue bringing this down, the focus will also be on increasing the number of patients starting treatment within 62 days.
NHS providers will also be expected to ensure three quarters (75%) of patients are diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days of a referral, and a tougher ambition of 80% will be introduced in 2025/26. To meet the increasing demand for cancer services, the NHS is investing £2.3 billion to expand diagnostics services and £1.5 billion for treatment over the coming years.