Falling cancer standards in hospitals are a sign of NHS success at improving recognition and early referral of suspected cancer cases, according to the head of the NHS in England.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, told MPs at a Public Accounts Committee meeting yesterday that the 51% increase in GP referrals had put huge demand on cancer services, but had led to cancers being picked up and treated earlier.
Mr Stevens was responding to questions from chair of the Committee, Labour’s Margaret Hodge MP, who pressed him on missed waiting targets outlined in last week’s National Audit Office report on cancer.
The report showed that while cancer survival rates have been improving, performance on waiting targets have slipped in recent months. In particular, the 62-day referral-to-treatment target has not been met for over a year.
‘Those must be early indicators of a service that is moving in the wrong direction not the right direction,’ Lady Hodge said.
In response, Mr Stevens said these were a ‘mark of success’.
He said: ‘The NHS is becoming much more successful at identifying patients who need referral urgently for their cancer treatment. So that the number of patients referred urgently within the two-week timeline has gone up from around 900,000 a year in 2009/10 to 1.36 million – so we’ve had a 51% increase.’
Mr Stevens added: ‘That’s a mark of our success – it means that more patients are being referred quickly… So we’ve actually seen an increased likelihood that you will be referred urgently for cancer and a higher number of people are being diagnosed quicker as a result.’
He added that ‘more work’ was nevertheless needed to increase the availability of diagnostic tests but that already NHS England was providing 300,000 extra diagnostic tests for cancer patients each month when compared with 2009/2010.
‘Is there more work to be done to deal with diagnostics bottle necks in the system? Yes there is, but we are providing more than 300,000 extra diagnostic tests for cancer patients each month than we were four or five years ago,’ he said.