Longer waits for cancer treatment as Leeds hospitals recover from Omicron wave

Less than half of cancer patients in Leeds urgently referred to hospital by their GP started their treatment within two months at the end of last year, according to new figures.

By Joanna Wardill
Tuesday, 15th February 2022, 4:45 am

NHS England statistics show Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust breached its cancer waiting time target in December, the most recent month for which figures are available.

The NHS states 85 per cent of cancer patients urgently referred by a GP should start treatment within 62 days - but just 48 per cent of patients met that target at the trust in December.

That was up slightly from 44 per cent in November, but down from 70 per cent the previous December.

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NHS England statistics show Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust breached its cancer waiting time target in December.

Hospital board papers show in November, the trust was ranked at 132 out of 135 Trusts in peer comparison for its 62 day performance.

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The report said “good progress” had been made between May 2020 and June 2021 in reducing the backlog of patients waiting over 62 days which at one point had a peak of 520 people waiting.

It added: “This is now reducing again, reaching 468 in the last week in November 2021”.

Reasons behind the delays were said to include a surge in “two-week-wait” referrals - where patients should be seen within two weeks of a GP referral - particularly for skin treatments which saw “well above normal seasonal levels” for referrals in October and November.

The papers say skin accounts for 50 per cent of the backlog, with smaller issues in colorectal, which makes up 11 per cent, and urology at 10 per cent.

An action plan to recover the skin position is said to include funding from the Cancer Alliance for 25 more dermatoscopes - hand-held devices for doctors to look close-up at skin - as well as consultant-led checks of full backlog lists, audit of referrals and images and working with the independent sector to boost capacity.

Elsewhere, NHS England figures show how the Leeds hospital trust fared on telling those urgently referred for a cancer check, whether they have the disease within 28 days.

Trusts must also inform least 75 per cent of patients within the 28-day time frame to meet the national target but figures show Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust fell below this in December, achieving 64 per cent.

It comes after the Yorkshire Evening Post revealed the most recent count of those waiting for routine treatment in Leeds stood at 75,658 at the end of December - an increase of 774 patients on the month previously and over 12,000 more than were waiting at the end of May 2021.

The number of patients waiting over a year was 3,268 at the end of December, a decrease of 77 on November’s position but the number waiting over two years - 104 weeks - had increased by 41.

The YEP reported how Leeds hospital chiefs were designing the city’s first ‘elective care hub’- Covid-free sites, away from emergency care, which provide safe spaces to help manage people who need elective procedures - in a bid to help tackle the backlog.

Dr Phil Wood, Chief Medical Officer & Deputy Chief Executive at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said: “The effects of the Omicron wave of COVID-19 meant that there were a huge increase in the number of people who needed our care. We prioritise all patients based on clinical need, including emergencies, and we are committed to achieving timely and safe care for all our patients.

“Some patients have waited longer for their treatment than we would like and we know that this is not ideal. Our teams are working incredibly hard to get back on track and ensure all patients can have the specialist care they need.

“We are pleased to see that the numbers of patients waiting longer than 62 days is falling and are committed to continuing this.”

Dr Kathryn Scott, Chief Executive at Yorkshire Cancer Research, said the long waits are a "clear reflection" of long-standing problems within the NHS.

She said: "Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust acts as a central hub for the region, treating patients from across Yorkshire at its specialist clinics in the city. The pandemic has understandably put a huge amount of pressure on these services, and healthcare professionals have gone above and beyond to provide gold standard care for patients.

“However, the recent cancer waiting time figures are a clear reflection of the problems that existed within the NHS long before Covid-19.

"We have routinely failed to meet the 62-day wait targets in Leeds and in Yorkshire for the past six years. It’s essential that the government acts now to address these long-standing issues by growing the cancer workforce, investing in equipment, levelling up on cancer and strengthening investment in cancer research and development.

"This is particularly important in Yorkshire, where people are more likely to develop and die from cancer than almost anywhere else in England.”

Nationally, 6.07 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of December – up from six million in November, and the highest number since records began in August 2007.

Of those, 311,000 had been waiting longer than a year – 39 per cent more than in December 2020.

Measures announced by the Government to tackle issues within the health service, include prioritising diagnosis and treatment, increasing activity through dedicated surgical hubs, and hiring 15,000 more care workers by the end of March.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the plan was the “biggest catch-up programme in the history of the health service backed by unprecedented funding”.

But health think tank The King’s Fund cast doubt over the plan.

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst, said: “The Government has provided additional funding and agreed a new plan with the NHS to improve hospital waits, but the glaring omission remains a strategy to ensure there are enough staff to make shorter waits a reality.”

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “While pressures remain for our staff, with the highest number of life-threatening ambulance callouts and 111 calls for the month of January, NHS staff are committed to bringing down the backlog, and the clear plan published this week will help increase the number of checks, tests and treatment provided for patients.”

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