Patients should be offered private option for bowel cancer tests, government adviser says

Long NHS waits persist in spite of increased funding

Patients should be offered the chance to pay for private bowel cancer tests because NHS waits are too long, a Department of Health (DH) adviser has said.

Prominent cancer GP and DH adviser Dr Nick Summerton told GP magazine that access to NHS endoscopy is now so poor that patients should be offered the chance to pay for faster tests.

Dr Summerton’s comments follow an investigation by GP magazine which found many patients wait months for tests such as colonoscopy.

Figures collected by GP through Freedom of Information requests to primary care trusts (PCTs) revealed that many trusts did not expand diagnostics in 2011/12, despite extra DH funding.

PCTs are being given £450m over four years from 2011/12 to improve early diagnosis of cancer.

But data from 94 PCTs that responded to a FOI request by GP show 50% of trusts made no attempt to expand or invest in additional endoscopy services in 2011/12.

GP's investigation found 85% of PCTs that had not invested in 2011/12 had no plans to do so in 2012/13. Just over a third (36%) of trusts could explain how they plan to spend their share of the £450m on endoscopy in 2012/13.

According to GP, by January, up to a quarter of patients in some PCTs that did not invest were waiting more than six weeks for colonoscopy. The figures cover patients who do not qualify for the two-week wait referral process.

From April, the DH expects less than 1% of patients to wait more than six weeks for a diagnostic test.

But while latest figures for March show many trusts’ waiting lists for colonoscopy have since improved, one in 40 patients are waiting more than six weeks for colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy.

Dr Summerton told GP magazine that colonoscopy services were "saturated".

He said long waits were unfair and patients not eligible for two-week referral should be offered faster access if they were prepared to pay.

A DH spokeswoman told GP: “Despite increasing demands on endoscopy services, the proportion of people waiting more than six weeks continues to fall.”

She said the DH had informed the NHS about the need to expand endoscopy services if it is to deliver improved cancer survival rates.

“It is for the local NHS to ensure it has appropriate levels of endoscopy services to meet their local healthcare needs,” she told GP.

“Diagnostic test waiting times will continue to form part of the performance discussions with strategic health authorities.”

Bowel Cancer UK warned that the DH cancer strategy "will be compromised" if PCTs do not invest in endoscopy, and that PCTs need to prepare for 15% higher demand.

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