NHS England has written to local NHS leaders urging them to speed up test turnaround times.
NHS England has said hospitals must work to a 10-day turnaround for patients who have received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.
The clock will start ticking from when a GP referral is received and will stop once the patient gets their result.
Figures published earlier this month show that there has been an improvement in the proportion of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer who were then diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days.
This is from 67% in January to 75% in February – the first time the target of 75% has been met.
Detecting cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be successful, can save lives, so it’s encouraging to see efforts by NHS England to expand diagnostic capacity and prioritise tests for people with suspected cancer
Cancer Research UK welcomed the latest move but said more staff were urgently needed.
Its chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: “Detecting cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be successful, can save lives, so it’s encouraging to see efforts by NHS England to expand diagnostic capacity and prioritise tests for people with suspected cancer.
“But the NHS is already severely under-staffed and this will continue to be an enormous barrier to delivering timely care for people affected by cancer.
“We urge the Government to deliver a fully-funded workforce plan for England that increases the number of clinicians being trained and tackles staff retention.
“Without this, it will be hard to significantly improve cancer survival in England.”
It is a testament to the hard work of NHS staff that we are seeing and treating record numbers of patients for cancer
In a letter to NHS managers and hospitals, Vin Diwakar, NHS England’s medical director for secondary care, Dame Cally Palmer, its national cancer director, and Sir David Sloman, its chief operating officer, said shorter waits are important both for those with confirmed cancer but also to those patients who do not have cancer.
It added: “Improving waiting times for patients referred for urgent suspected cancer will be a critical priority for the NHS over the coming year.”
The letter sets out that NHS trusts must be hitting the 10-day turnaround time by next March, with a “comprehensive performance improvement plan” for trusts not already meeting the target.
It is understood that fewer than one in 10 NHS trusts currently turn around cancer test results within 10 days.
The NHS has opened community diagnostic centres across England, with locations including shopping centres, in a bid to increase capacity.
For the vast majority of patients whose tests show they don’t have cancer, ending what is a spell of extreme anxiety sooner will be a great relief
These centres will be expected to prioritise cancer patients, the letter added.
Dame Cally said: “It is a testament to the hard work of NHS staff that we are seeing and treating record numbers of patients for cancer, and have made significant progress bringing down the backlog and achieving the target for diagnosing three-quarters of people within 28 days – all despite huge demand and pressures on the system.
“Fortunately, the vast majority of suspected cancer patients waiting for a diagnostic test will not have cancer, but for those waiting it can be a very anxious time, so we are asking trusts to aim for a 10-day turnaround time between GP referral and tests results for patients – so we can get people the all-clear faster, or in some cases ensure patients diagnosed with cancer are able to start treatment sooner.
“Lives are saved when cancers are caught early and while we’re already diagnosing a higher proportion of cancers at an earlier stage than ever before – we want to ensure we’re making the absolute most of the diagnostic capacity in our community centres and hospitals.”
Jane Lyons, chief executive of Cancer52, said: “For the vast majority of patients whose tests show they don’t have cancer, ending what is a spell of extreme anxiety sooner will be a great relief, and for the roughly seven in 100 who are diagnosed with cancer, moving on from that period of uncertainty to being able to discuss next steps with doctors as quickly as possible is crucial.
We welcome the announcement of support for pathology services which will help our members provide the quicker diagnoses that patients need
“When we know record levels of people are being sent by their GPs for cancer tests, it’s good to see the NHS making clear these patients need to be prioritised.”
Professor Mike Osborn, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: “We welcome the announcement of support for pathology services which will help our members provide the quicker diagnoses that patients need.
“Pathologists have long asked for improvements in digital pathology and infrastructure to help them provide better patient care.
“We fully support this initiative and the fresh focus on pathology which it should provide will, we hope, make a real difference to patients.”