Pandemic sees Shropshire cancer patients’ waiting times rise

The pandemic continues to hit cancer treatment times in Shropshire, with the number of urgent GP referrals treated within two months dropping again.

Staff monitor a patient's cancer treatment
Staff monitor a patient's cancer treatment

The county's major hospitals have been at the forefront of the battle against Covid, with hundreds of patients requiring treatment for the virus during the devastating third wave since Christmas.

The strain on health services across the country has been shown in further falls in the number of cancer patients starting treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral.

The target is that 85 per cent of patients are seen within the limit but figures for February show Shrewsbury & Telford Hospital NHS Trust (SaTH) has seen it drop to 72 per cent, from 76 per cent in January.

It means that 31 patients had to wait longer than the two months set out by the government.

Across England, just 69.7 per cent of patients received cancer treatment within two months of an urgent referral in February – the worst performance on record. It means the NHS target has now not been met for nearly three years.

At SaTH the number has fluctuated over the past 12 months, with a high of 86 per cent – meeting the target – in July, but lows of 69 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

Macmillan Cancer Support has said the latest statistics reveal the enduring impact of the coronavirus pandemic on cancer services.

SaTH has said it is focussing on restoring cancer services, with the trust's Chief Executive Louise Barnett outlining the ambitions to its board last month.

Louise Barnett, chief executive of The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust

In a report addressing the issue she said there was a focus on making sure the risk of additional harm is minimised.

She said: "High levels of Covid-19 activity have unfortunately resulted in continuing delays for routine treatments and the loss of capacity for some of our more urgent cases as a result of the expansion of our critical care capacity.

"We are now in the process of restoring a number of these services and are prioritising our cancer and urgent surgery patients so that we minimise the risk of additional harm."

The report spelled out the difficulties facing the trust with specific references to the challenges of the 62 day target.

It said there had been a "huge reduction in surgical capacity due to Covid".

It added: "Capacity does not meet demand (diagnostics a significant issue even prior to Covid)."

Catastrophic

Sara Bainbridge, Macmillan's head of policy, said: “This data further illustrates the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"It’s vital that cancer services continue to be prioritised and that those with cancer are not forgotten."

A group of MPs, charities and Royal Colleges are calling on the Government to provide urgent funding for cancer services to tackle the Covid-19 induced backlog and "save thousands of lives."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the Government is committed to providing high quality cancer care, with cancer diagnosis and treatment remaining "a top priority" throughout the pandemic.

"More than 2.5 million urgent referrals were made within waiting time targets in the past year alone and for every coronavirus patient, two cancer patients received treatment," they added.

Number of diagnostic scans in the county drops by a fifth

The number of scans used to diagnose cancer at the county’s hospitals has dropped by a fifth as the coronavirus pandemic hit hospital services.

A pause on non-urgent treatment, a shortage of radiographers and a reduction in people coming forward for tests are said to have affected scans across England.

Teams at SaTH performed more than 16,000 fewer imaging scans between March last year and February in comparison to the same period in 2019-20, NHS figures show. Imaging tests that can be used to diagnose or detect cancer were carried out 64,825 times during that time – a 20 per cent drop.

The number of brain MRI scans rose by three per cent while there were 21 per cent fewer chest X-rays performed and a drop of 28 per cent in ultrasounds of the pelvis and abdomen.

There were also drops in the number carried out at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital (RJAH) near Oswestry, with 1,000 fewer than the year before – a 25 per cent fall. Brain MRI scans fell by 29 per cent while there were 29 per cent fewer chest X-rays performed and a drop of 32 per cent in ultrasounds of the pelvis and abdomen.

Across England, the number of scans used to diagnose or discount cancer dropped by a quarter to about 8.5m as lockdown measures gripped the health service. Postponements of non-urgent healthcare throughout spring last year contributed to the steep decline in diagnostic imaging activity levels.

Impact

But a reduction in people coming forward for tests has also had an impact, according to an NHS spokesman, while the Royal College of Radiologists say the crisis was exacerbated by a shortage of radiographers that predates the pandemic.

Dr William Ramsden from the RCR said waiting lists for hospital treatments were at a record high, with many patients on those lists likely to require scans.

Calling for investment in radiologist training, he added: “The pause in non-elective NHS work during the coronavirus peak last spring had a huge knock-on impact on waits for scans and treatment. NHS England has helped increase radiology capacity, coming through with emergency funding for scanners and private provider support, which must continue.”

Dr Ramsden said thousands more radiologists were needed in order to ensure the changes could be implemented successfully. An NHS spokesperson praised the tireless efforts of NHS staff and said diagnostic imaging services had continued despite the impact of the pandemic, with 90 per cent of urgent referrals with suspected cancer seen within two weeks in February.

Eric Hughes, radiology services manager at RJAH, said: “During the period between March 2020 and February of this year, there were a number of months where, in line with national requirements, we stopped undertaking routine diagnostic scans – in the interests of patient safety and to enable staff from our hospital to support the response to the pandemic.

“However, urgent scans continued to be available, and suspected cancer patients were always seen and prioritised.”

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