NHS England’s annual Cancer Waiting Times report was released today. The report publishes waiting times between a referral by a GP for suspected cancer and being seen by a specialist, as well as time before the first treatment.
The 2014/15 figures show that 96.2% of people referred to hospital by their GP with a suspected haematological malignancy saw a specialist within two weeks. Although this represents a slightly higher proportion than found for all suspected cancers combined (94.2%), it is in fact a slight fall from the 2013/14 results, when 97.3% of blood cancer patients were seen within 14 days. Although a small change, this decrease is worrying because we know that the health of blood cancer patients is more likely to deteriorate during this waiting period.
The report indicates that only 13,567 patients suspected of having a haematological malignancy in England in 2014/15 were referred to a hospital specialist by their GP using the two-week wait standard. By comparison around 24,000 cases of blood cancer are diagnosed in England each year. Patients diagnosed with acute leukaemia are not included in this figure, or in NHS England’s figures, as the onset of this disease (which is often sudden and severe) means that these patients are usually (and appropriately) referred directly to hospital via emergency routes, rather than the two-week wait standard.
Blood cancers are the only cancer with fewer suspected cases referred via a GP using the two-week wait standard than the total amount of patients diagnosed. For example, while there are around 42,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in England each year, GPs referred 275,840 suspected cases to specialists to be assessed in 2014/15.
There are many reasons for these differences. Patients with haematological malignancies often have vague symptoms that vary depending on the type of blood cancer; and these symptoms (such as tiredness, aches and pains and swollen glands), are also often found in patients that do not have cancer. This means GPs do not always identify these symptoms as potential cancers and so refer patients routinely rather than urgently to hospital, and often to other specialities rather than haematology.
Blood cancer patients tend to consult their GP more times before being referred to hospital and are more likely to be diagnosed after emergency presentation than many other cancers. It is crucial that these problems, which were confirmed recently in our Patient Need project, are addressed as soon as possible.