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In line with the recommendation of the 2015 Independent Cancer Taskforce, government has approved that the outdated two week wait target will be replaced with the Faster Diagnosis Standard from October.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.
“Catching cancers early saves live and these three standards have been agreed by leading cancer experts, with the support of cancer charities and clinicians, as the best way for the NHS to ensure patients are diagnosed and able to start treatment quickly.”
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 – it aims to ensure that patients get the all clear or a definitive diagnosis within 28 days.
“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.
“NHS staff are already embracing the best innovations for the benefit of patients and these streamlined measures support newer ways of testing and will allow us to continue to make the most of the latest advances in technology.”
Health Minister, Will Quince said: “The biggest factor in people surviving cancer is the stage at which they are diagnosed. We have listened to the advice from clinical experts and NHS England to reform cancer standards which will speed up diagnosis for patients.
“Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, we’ve delivered record numbers of cancer checks, meaning almost three million people have received care in the last 12 months that could save their lives.
“We are making progress to deliver on our priority to cut waiting lists, there are record numbers of staff working in the NHS, and we have recently announced our Long-Term Workforce Plan to ensure people get the care they need quicker.”
Twice the number of patients are receiving potentially lifesaving NHS cancer checks in England now than they were a decade ago.
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.
Local NHS services have expanded their diagnostic capabilities through one stop shops for tests, mobile clinics, accelerating the rolling out of ‘teledermatology’ services and created cancer symptom hotlines, to ensure people are diagnosed and treated as early as possible to give them a much better chance of beating the disease.
Since 2021, NHS England has rolled out more than 100 community diagnostic centres (CDCs) across England to offer more scans, checks and operations as soon as possible. Latest data shows that CDCs have carried over four million additional checks for cancer and other major diseases.
As part of plans to see and treat people for cancer as early as possible, hospitals have also been asked to work towards a 10-day turnaround when delivering diagnostic test results to patients who have received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.
Alongside the updated standards, the NHS has also committed to publishing a more detailed breakdown of the cancer statistics each month, increasing the number of cancer types for which separate data are published. Statistics on performance against the old standards will continue to be collected.