27% increase in cancer referrals mean more pressure at local hospitals

Ipswich Hospital sign

Ipswich Hospital has seen the number of potential cancer referrals rise by 27%. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The number of patients being referred to cancer specialists at hospitals in Ipswich and Colchester has increased by 27% over the last year - meaning the proportion being seen by a specialist within the two-week target has dropped.

According to new figures from the East Suffolk and North Essex Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) only 74.7% of urgent referrals from GPs were seen by hospital specialists within two weeks during March - a fall from 79.2% in February. 

The national target is for 93% of referrals to be seen within a fortnight.

Another target is that cancer patients should start their treatment within 62 days of diagnosis - this was met by 75.7% of ESNEFT patients in March, up from 73.2% in February.

A spokeswoman for ESNEFT said the trust was one of the busiest in the country when it came to the number of cancer patients that it was dealing with and had seen an unprecedented rise in demand.

During the first year of the pandemic, between March 2020 and March 2021, 326,000 fewer people in England received an urgent referral for suspected cancer than in the previous year.

That has meant there has been a large rise in referrals over the last year - ESNEFT has responded by increasing the number of clinics and changing the way it has worked with longer hours and more flexible working using other resources.

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The spokeswoman said: "We are putting a great deal of effort into this - but that is alongside all the other services that we provide."

The figures are contained in a report to the ESNEFT board that will be discussed at its directors' meeting on Thursday - and very much reflect the national picture.

According to NHS England a record-breaking 2.7 million people were referred for cancer checks over the last year after the dramatic decline in 2020.

The number of patients receiving treatment for the disease has also risen, by 2,000 since the start of the pandemic, according to the health service.

According to data from NHS England and NHS Improvement, referrals for suspected cancer remained at around 116% of pre-pandemic levels even during the peak of the Omicron wave, and rose overall from 2.4 million to 2,657,316.

Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England, said: “We have seen record numbers of people coming forward for checks in the last year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 who haven’t started treatment due to the pandemic, so it’s vital that we keep these referral rates high.”