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GP cancer referrals increase as hospital trusts struggle to meet targets

NHS foundation trusts are failing to meet 62-week wait targets for treating cancer referrals in the wake of steadily increasing numbers of patients referred by GPs, Monitor has found.

Monitor’s figures for the first quarter of 2014 show that GPs referred 18,200 patients for cancer treatments in England – compared to 16,900 in the same period last year – marking a year on year increase of 8%.

And although trusts achieved overall targets for cancer screenings and two-week waits, only 84.7% of patients were treated within 62 weeks of referral, which is the first time that the sector has missed this target, according to the report. Around 27 trusts breached the target this quarter, compared to eight last year.

Earlier this month, Cancer Research UK released figures which showed cancer referrals have increased 50% in the last five years as a result of improved diagnostics and more GP referrals.The charity called for more investment to prevent GP referrals ‘outstripping’ available resources.

Monitor’s report, due to be presented to the board next week, said: ‘The consistently high level of cancer referrals in recent quarters appears to have had a direct bearing on the decline in performance.’

It adds: ‘This, combined with rising emergency demands, has created further capacity pressures. In addition, consultant shortages in some specialities (e.g. urology) and late referrals have also been cited as key contributing factors for the breach.’

BMA Council chair Dr Mark Porter said of the report: ‘This is extremely worrying […] services are stretched to breaking point, targets are being missed during the summer months when the NHS is not subject to seasonal spikes demand and waiting lists are at a six year high.’

‘We cannot continue to meet rising demand on the health service with under-funding. Unless urgent action is taken to put the NHS on a sustainable financial footing it simply won’t be able to cope and patients will suffer.’

Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust reported last month that missed targets for two-week-wait referrals and 62-day waits for treatment were partly caused by surges in demand, including a 20% rise in breast cancer referrals, related to national awareness campaigns around blood in urine, bowel cancer and breast cancer.