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GPs report increase in cancer waits

By Lilian Anekwe

Exclusive: GPs have observed increasing waiting times for their patients across a wide range of specialties, with even referrals for cancer investigation delayed in some areas, a survey reveals.

Almost half of GPs responding to the survey – conducted by Pulse and commissioned by Spire Healthcare – said their patients were waiting longer for orthopaedic and musculoskeletal procedures. A quarter of GPs said patients were waiting longer for cardiology treatment, 36% for neurology, and 27% for care in other areas, including counselling, physiotherapy and psychological therapy.

Dr Neman Khan, a GP in Woking, Surrey, said: 'Almost all areas are now relaxing the 18-week target.'

But the most controversial finding will be the apparent increase in waiting times for cancer – where targets exist for patients to be seen within two weeks of urgent referral, 31 days from diagnosis to treatment and 62 days from urgent GP referral to treatment. One in 10 of more than 560 GPs responding said their patients were waiting longer for cancer diagnosis or treatment.

A GP in south Wales who wished to remain anonymous said NHS cuts were having a damaging effect: 'One of my patients had a family history of breast cancer and a lump on her breast that felt suspicious. I referred her with a suspected malignancy, but she waited a month to be seen and six weeks for treatment. That is too long – the delay was unacceptable.'

The survey findings came as Department of Health figures published last week found a further fall in the proportion of patients treated within the 18-week time frame cited in the NHS constitution since the target was scrapped last June.

Median waiting times rose from eight weeks one year ago, when 92% of patients were treated within 18 weeks, to nine weeks, with 89.8% treated within 18 weeks – below the former 90% target for the first time.

The survey of GPs also reveals the extent of rationing across the NHS. Seven in 10 GPs said primary care organisations were placing restrictions on fertility treatment, 63% on bariatric surgery, 22% on orthopaedic treatments, including hip and knee procedures, and 20% on other areas including varicose vein surgery, minor surgery and tonsillectomies.

As a consequence, 39% of GPs said they had seen an increase in patients asking about going private for treatment.

Dr Chitra Pandilwar, a GP in Newcastle upon Tyne, said he would consider offering the choice of private treatment to patients 'if there are long waiting times in the NHS'.

Care services minister Paul Burstow said: 'There is no excuse to let waiting times drop, especially for cancer, where targets are clinically justified and have been retained.'

Waiting times on the rise

Are you seeing waiting times increase for NHS treatment in any of the following clinical areas?

Cardiology - 28%
Oncology - 10%
Ophthalmology - 28%
Musculoskeletal - 54%
Neurology - 41%
Other - 30%

Pulse survey of 566 GPs, commissioned by Spire Healthcare

GPs report increase in cancer waits