17th August 2023

Understanding the new NHS cancer standards

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The NHS has confirmed it is reforming its cancer standards in a bid to speed up diagnosis and treatment but what does it mean in practice?

There are currently 10 performance standards for cancer. From October, this will be consolidated into three key standards:

  • The 28-day Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS)
  • The 62-day referral to treatment standard
  • The 31-day decision to treat to treatment standard.

The 28-Day Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS)

Under this new standard, a patient with suspected cancer and who has been referred for urgent cancer checks, such as a CT scan, should be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.

The 62-day referral to treatment standard

This standard means patients who have been referred for suspected cancer from any source – whether it is referred for a CT scan via their GP, or attending a lung cancer screening check – and go on to receive a diagnosis should start treatment within 62 days of their referral.

The 31-day decision to treat to treatment standard

This means if a person is diagnosed with cancer and has made the decision to have treatment, they should start that treatment within 31 days.

What’s happened to the urgent two-week wait?

Under the existing standards, if your GP suspects you may have cancer, they request an urgent hospital appointment for you. You should then have that appointment or test, such as a CT scan, within two weeks of the referral being made.

New cancer standards aim to speed up diagnosis

This cancer standard is now considered ‘outdated’ and will be replaced with the Faster Diagnosis Standard. GPs will still refer people with suspected cancer in the same way, but the focus will be on getting people diagnosed or cancer ruled out within 28 days, rather than simply getting a first appointment.

As part of plans to see and treat people for cancer as early as possible, hospitals have also been asked to work towards a 10-day turnaround when delivering diagnostic test results to patients who have received an urgent referral for suspected cancer. 

Can the NHS meet these new cancer standards?

The pressure on the NHS is well documented, so are these new standards realistic?

According to NHS data, over two million patients with suspected cancer were diagnosed or received the all-clear within 28 days in the last year, with twice the number of patients receiving potentially lifesaving NHS cancer checks in England now than they were a decade ago. 

However, Professor Peter Johnson, NHS National Clinical Director for Cancer, acknowledges more needs to be done and believe these new streamlined cancer standards will help achieve this:

“It is a testament to the hard work of NHS staff that we are seeing and treating record numbers of patients for cancer, and diagnosing people at an earlier stage than ever before, giving them the best chance of survival. 

“On top of delivering record checks and treatments, staff have also made significant progress bringing down the longest waits, but we want to ensure even more patients are being diagnosed and treated as early as possible following referral.  

These modified standards will provide a clear focus for how to achieve this, and the faster diagnosis standard already being used across the country. It will mean more patients will benefit from a speedier diagnosis or the all clear within a month, helping to relieve anxieties or enabling treatment to start sooner.

“Catching cancers early saves live and these three standards have been agreed by leading cancer experts, with the support of cancer charities and clinicians, as the best way for the NHS to ensure patients are diagnosed and able to start treatment quickly.”

Jesme Fox is the medical director at Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. She welcomes the changes to the cancer standards which can help not only speed up diagnosis and treatment but also minimise the distress long waiting times can have:

“When it comes to lung cancer, people need to get diagnosed as quickly as possible and start treatment swiftly. Early detection saves lives. People diagnosed with lung cancer at the earliest stage are nearly 20 times more likely to survive for five years than those whose cancer is caught late.

We know the anguish patients and their families can endure waiting for tests and results – every day feels like a lifetime – so we welcome any new measures that focus on reducing that agonising wait, getting a diagnosis and setting patients on the right treatment path sooner.

“Streamlining the cancer standards and waiting time targets will also help people navigate the lung cancer minefield. The new reforms are much clearer, easier to comprehend and set clear expectations for patients and their families.

“We always encourage people to advocate for themselves or a loved ones undergoing a diagnosis. Having a clear understanding of the standards will allow them to do so and feel a little more in control in an otherwise overwhelming situation.”

For more information about the NHS cancer targets and what this means for you or your loved one, you can contact our Ask the Nurse service on 0800 358 7200 or email lungcancerhelp@roycastle.org