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Myeloma UK calls for overhaul of cancer services after 55,000 patients missed out on timely diagnosis and treatment

Patient advocacy news // 11th October 2021

Myeloma UK has joined the One Cancer Voice campaign in urging the government to overhaul cancer services after it emerged that nearly 55,000 patients missed out on timely diagnosis and treatment over the past six years.

Since 2015, NHS England has repeatedly fallen short of its target to diagnose and treat 85% of cancer patients within two months of an urgent referral, according to the latest figures released by Cancer Research UK.

This means that close to 55,000 cancer patients were diagnosed or started treatment late. And the number of patients let down by the system is increasing year on year. Records show that, so far this year, 11,600 patients waited over 62 days to be seen despite receiving an urgent suspected cancer referral.

Chronic underinvestment, lack of equipment and resources to carry out diagnostic tests in a timely manner and staff shortages have all contributed to delays in diagnosis and treatment. This already alarming state of affairs has only been compounded by the pandemic and the growing backlog of patients awaiting diagnosis.

It is not yet known how many myeloma or blood cancer patients have been affected since 2015 as Cancer Research UK’s figures do not include a breakdown by condition. But delayed diagnosis is an ongoing issue with myeloma as its symptoms are especially vague and easily missed, dismissed as ageing or put down to other minor conditions.

Most myeloma patients face a wait of over 163 days before getting the right diagnosis. 31% are diagnosed via an emergency route. Delayed diagnosis can lead to more severe symptoms, advanced disease and poor survival rates. 38% of myeloma patients diagnosed via an emergency route die within a year.

In a bid to reverse this alarming trend and give patients the best possible outcome, today Myeloma UK co-signed a letter along with 46 cancer charities, including Cancer Research UK, under the One Cancer Voice umbrella, calling on the Prime Minister to invest much-needed funds into recruiting staff and securing vital equipment to meet growing demand for cancer care and support a radical reform of screening and diagnostic services in England.

Myeloma UK Director of Research and Patient Advocacy, Sarah McDonald, said:

“The bottom line is that patients deserve better. Yet, they are the ones left to pay the price for chronic underfunding, staff shortages and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Myeloma is a difficult cancer to diagnose at the best of times so any delay in diagnosis or missed opportunity to catch the disease in a timely manner will significantly impact life expectancy and quality of life. We won’t rest until the government makes sustained and long-term investment in training, recruitment and equipment and gives patients a fighting chance to live well with myeloma for as long as possible.”

The NHS target only captures patients referred via an urgent suspected cancer referral. Other cancer patients, such as those that are diagnosed following a routine referral, are likely to have waited even longer for diagnosis and treatment.

The number of people diagnosed with cancer in the UK is projected to reach over half a million per year by 2035, up from around 367,000 in 2015 when the target was last met.

Yet investment has not kept pace with demand and the NHS is under significant pressure. Even before the pandemic, around 1 in 10 diagnostic posts were not filled.

Professor Guy Pratt, consultant haematologist at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital and member of the Myeloma UK Early Diagnosis Steering Committee and MGUS Working Group, said:

“There is a real problem with delayed diagnosis in myeloma, which leads to early mortality. I feel we’ve gone backwards with COVID-19. You hear endlessly about people having trouble getting through to their GPs – it’s a big issue because those patients will present much later now. With the backlogs and waiting lists in hospital, the delays have probably got worse. Ultimately, it’s about re-auditing patients’ outcomes, seeing how many have late presentations and how we can improve that.”