A Government campaign to raise awareness of bowel cancer is likely to ‘flood’ diagnostic services and increase waiting times, say experts.
The ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign is encouraging people who have had blood in their faeces or loose faeces for more than three weeks to see their GP, but experts say it will mean that patients not on two-week waits will experience delays.
The Department of Health has rolled out the national campaign – part of a commitment to save an additional 5,000 lives per year by 2014/2015 – this week, with adverts lined up for TV, radio, online and in newspapers in England for nine weeks.
Care services minister Paul Burstow said: ‘The “Be Clear on Cancer” campaign uses simple messages to make people aware of the key symptoms of bowel cancer and to give them the confidence to talk to their GP if they notice the symptoms.’
A seven-week pilot run in the East and South West regions of England found a 48% increase in primary care attendances in people over 50 with relevant symptoms and a 32% increase over a six month period in two-week wait colorectal cancer referrals during the campaign.
There was also a 16.4% increase in South West England in the number of people waiting for colonoscopy.
Dr Michael Cohen, a GPSI in gastroenterology who runs an endoscopy unit in Bristol, said existing services were not set up to cope with this kind of demand and there was no money around to increase their capacity.
He said: ‘It is going to flood the system and undoubtedly it will affect waiting times. At the moment hospitals are struggling to do their existing work and if you add this in it is just going to increase that backlog.’
‘There are a lot of patients who have polyps and they are at risk of developing colorectal cancer. They on regular one-, three- or five- year recalls and the hospitals are having difficulty keeping up with those.’
‘If you have new patients with symptoms it is going to tip the balance and the balance is precarious at the moment.’
Dr Steve Hughes, endoscopy vice-president at the British Society of Gastroenterology, told members in a recent newsletter that they must look at increasing capacity.
He said: ‘At a time when endoscopy units are struggling with the age extension for the Bowel Cancer Screening programme, this may threaten diagnostic and surveillance waiting times,’ he said.
DH cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards wrote to NHS managers last year to urge them to increase capacity in advance of the campaign, saying trusts would need to undertake around 10 additional colonoscopies per week, with that figure doubling for larger trusts.