Waits for Urgent Breast Cancer Referrals Reportedly Nearly 3 Times the Acceptable Limit

In many parts of the world, hospitals are understaffed and full of patients with urgent healthcare needs, largely due to COVID-19 and related issues. Sadly, this has impacted a large number of patients who have non-COVID-related healthcare needs. The staffing problems and high patient load has led to long wait times, overworked staff, and worse outcomes for some patients. And in many parts of the world, that may include some breast cancer patients.

Recently, hospitals in North London began reporting extra-long wait times for patients seeking an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer. Typically, the longest wait time considered “acceptable” for urgent breast cancer referrals is 14 days. However, in light of the pandemic and related issues, some patients are waiting nearly three times that amount.

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NHS North Central London Clinical Commission Group (CCG) has officially notified general practitioners about the issue, reporting that wait times are averaging about 22 days and could be as long as 40 days in some cases.

North Middlesex University Hospital has reported at least one instance of a patient waiting 40 days for sucha a referral. Wait times are a little shorter at other hospitals in the healthcare group, but all surpass the 14-day “acceptable” limit.

This extra wait time for patients suspected of having breast cancer means an increase in stress for those patients and for their doctors.

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“Patients with suspected cancer should be able to rely on the Government’s promise of a two-week wait,” says Dr. Michelle Drage, chief executive of Londonwide Local Medical Committee (LMC). “The stress for patients of being offered a hospital appointment later than two weeks means yet more pressure on them. It also means more pressure on practice staff and GPs who not only have to hold the clinical risk, but also spend additional time managing enquiries from worried patients seeking further reassurance and help to expedite delayed hospital appointments.”

The CCG has requested that GPs “have conversations” with their patients about their expectations and “the best place to refer them for care.”

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“The NHS in North Central London is working extremely hard to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on routine care, and is continuing to prioritise urgent care for patients including cancer,” says a CCG spokesperson. “We are monitoring cancer waiting times very closely, and hospitals are working in partnership to diagnose and treat patients as quickly and equitably as possible – action includes staff working across different hospital sites, protecting and opening new diagnostic facilities, operating additional clinics at multiple sites at evenings and weekends, and working with GPs to even out referrals between providers.”

We know North London is not the only location where this is the sad truth of what’s happening to breast cancer patients and other people with pressing healthcare concerns. We can only hope that solutions are implemented soon and that patients with significant healthcare concerns can begin being seen sooner. Everyone deserves prompt care for urgent issues like suspected breast cancer.

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