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Cancer testing bottleneck

A new NHS drive to increase the proportion of cancer patients GPs refer urgently will have little impact on waiting times for diagnosis or treatment, a study warns.

By Emma Wilkinson

It follows last week's news that NHS managers are aiming to halve the number of cancer cases missing out on referral via the two-week rule. Researchers found there had already been dramatic improvements in GP referral rates since 1998 ­ but these had failed to translate into faster treatment.

They called for 'new thinking' to hit the 62-day target from GP referral to treatment, and urged the Government to address 'bottlenecks' in cancer services by giving GPs direct access to diagnostic tests.

Study leader Mrs Celia Ingham Clark, consultant in general surgery at the Whittington Hospital in North London, said: 'There's a whole lot of people who used to come as emergencies who now come as urgent referrals, which is great. But overall cancer waiting times have not changed significantly.'

Dr David Wild, cancer lead for Calderdale PCT and a GP in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, said: 'Inflexibility in the system is causing a real headache ­ patients in the slow-track system are waiting longer than ever for their diagnostic tests because they are not fast tracked. I feel we should move towards rapid access to diagnostics [for GPs].'

The audit found the proportion of cases GPs referred urgently leapt from 33 per cent in 1998 to 55 per cent in 2003. But stage of cancer diagnosis did not improve, except for stage D, and the proportion hitting the 31-day target from decision to treat to first treatment fell.

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