The importance of early diagnosis and treatment of patients suffering from cancer is emphasised time and time again as it is incredibly vital for improving the odds of surviving the disease.

Anyone concerned about ‘out of the ordinary’ symptoms are encouraged to seek advice from their family doctor who should discuss those concerns and assess whether further investigation is necessary. If a primary care professional has any concerns about the possibility of cancer, under the Guidelines set by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), an urgent referral should be made to the appropriate specialist. The patient should be seen within two weeks of the referral being made. Recent studies confirm that 93% of patients referred under this two week rule are being seen within these timescales - which is promising.

Once a patient has been seen by the specialist and a diagnosis of cancer has been confirmed, treatment will need to commence. The waiting time targets set by the Government for treating cancer patients in England and Wales are:

  • No more than a two month wait between an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer and starting treatment
  • Treatment to start no more than 31 days after the meeting at which the patient and specialist agree the treatment plan.

The Government has further stipulated that at least 85% of patients should start treatment within 62 days of being referred by GPs but a recent NHS study has highlighted concerns that, between October and December 2014, only 83.8% of patients were treated within that timeframe. Furthermore, the NHS said that this was the fourth successive quarter that the target was missed and, as a consequence, it is estimated that 5,000 patients a year are experiencing unnecessary delays in starting their much needed cancer treatment.

NHS officials are scrutinising the figures to determine the cause of the problems and have set up an independent taskforce to develop a plan to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment over the next five years, with the aim of saving thousands more lives.

Naomi Holland, an associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, comments: "Although it is good news that 93% of patients are being seen by a specialist within two weeks of visiting their GP, this study identifies that more needs to be done in secondary care to ensure that, once diagnosed, patients receive their treatment promptly. Understandably, this is an incredibly distressing time for patients and their families and  any delay causes further unnecessary anxiety. We regularly see patients whose delayed treatment in secondary care has resulted in them not responding to treatment as well as they would have done had they received treatment earlier."