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New figures reveal diagnostic testing backlog due to COVID-19

Image credit: Peter Byrne/PA

New figures reveal diagnostic testing backlog due to COVID-19

Sixty-five per cent of Scottish patients waited more than the six-week target to receive a diagnostic test in the quarter ending 30 June 2020.

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Scotland said the figures, released by Public Health Scotland on Tuesday, showed “a clear indication of the backlog that’s been mounting since lockdown”.

As of 30 June there were 98,332 patients waiting for the eight key diagnostic tests, 11.4 per cent higher (10,031 patients) than 29 February, and there were 33.4 per cent more patients waiting for an endoscopy test.

Almost half of patients had been waiting more than 13 weeks for their test, compared to just 5.1 per cent at 29 February. The data showed just three per cent of patients waiting for an inpatient or day case procedure had been waiting for less than the 12-week Treatment Time Guarantee, while about 30 per cent patients had been on the waiting list for over 24 weeks.

CRUK Scotland head of external affairs Marion O’Neill said tackling the backlog of those waiting for tests “will require more workforce, more equipment and the adoption of other innovations that release capacity into the system”.

“Hospital services have had to rapidly adapt and innovate to manage the impact of the pandemic so far, and this will need to continue to prevent the number of suspected cancer cases mounting up further,” she said.

“The public also need to feel confident that, if they have suspected cancer symptoms, they will receive a test swiftly and safely, with minimal risk of exposure to COVID-19. Protecting diagnosis and treatment areas from the virus must be priority.

“Increasing service capacity is also essential. The introduction of infection control measures means that providing cancer services has become more time and resource intensive.

“As part of its cancer recovery plan, it's essential the Scottish Government works together with health boards to address issues like the reduction of capacity in cancer services to ensure that every patient in Scotland receives the best possible care now and into the future.”

Macmillan head of policy and campaigns in Scotland Kate Seymour said the figures were “extremely concerning”, and “while not all of those waiting for tests will have suspected cancer, many of them will”.

“Waiting to find out whether you have a life-threatening illness is one of the most stressful experiences anyone will endure. Being finally diagnosed over three months after being referred for tests adds legitimate worries about how that wait may have impacted on their health and the potential consequences of a more advanced cancer requiring more invasive and debilitating treatment,” she said.

“While we know the pandemic has been extremely challenging for the NHS, people with cancer can’t be expected to pay the price.

“The Scottish Government has promised to deliver a cancer recovery plan in the autumn. It must include radical plans to get the cancer care system back on track as rapidly as possible, using all available capacity to clear the diagnostics backlog and ensure waiting times for cancer tests and treatments are returned to at least the level they were pre-COVID.”

Responding to the statistics, health secretary Jeane Freeman said the impact of COVID-19 “means there are significant operational challenges ahead for the NHS in Scotland, which are reflected in the statistics published today”.

“In recent weeks, health boards have been carefully resuming a wide range of services, but the ongoing need for additional infection prevention and control measures means each clinic or theatre session will see fewer patients. However, those patients who require urgent, elective and vital cancer treatment have been, and will continue to be, prioritised,” she said.

“I recognise that there is a human story behind each and every one of these statistics, and that further delays can materially affect the quality of life of those waiting for care or treatment, with continuing pain and further anxiety.

“I am acutely aware of that and want to be in a position where the NHS can speed up mobilisation as soon as possible – however, the safety of patients and staff is always at the forefront of decisions taken.

“As we continue to deal with the virus, we have to continue to balance demands and pressures, making the best decisions we can: none of which are easy and none of which are taken lightly.”

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