Two-week “fast-track” cancer targets to be scrapped: what does it mean for you?

The NHS is scrapping the current two-week cancer appointment target to focus on delivering a 28-day diagnosis, but will it mean quicker treatment?

People who have been urgently referred for cancer checks could have the disease diagnosed or ruled out within 28 days under new plans from the NHS in England.

At the moment, people in England who are referred by their GP should be able to see a specialist within two weeks. However, that target hasn’t been met since May 2020, with one in five people waiting longer for their appointment. It comes as recent figures showed that a record 7.6 million people are waiting for treatment from the NHS for a wide range of conditions.

The Faster Diagnosis Standard, which has actually been in use since 2021, promises a diagnosis within 28 days of referral. 

Doctor consultationCredit: Shutterstock / Lordn

A “crisis” in cancer care

In England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there’s a target of a maximum of 62 days between the date the hospital receives a suspected urgent cancer referral and the start of treatment and no more than 31 days between agreeing a treatment plan with your doctor and the start of it.

Cancer charities have pointed out that the NHS is already failing against its targets, and needs more staff and funding to recover from a “crisis” in cancer care.

Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Focusing more on ensuring people with cancer receive a diagnosis as quickly as possible should help improve patient outcomes. However, this and any other cancer targets will only be met if the UK Government deals with the systemic challenges in cancer care in England. 

“Cancer care is in crisis and performance against waiting times targets has been unacceptably low for years. Ultimately, we need to see people getting tested, diagnosed and treated faster. The UK Government must step in and provide cancer services with the funding and staff needed to provide timely and quality care to all cancer patients. Without this, the new targets will fall flat before they’ve even started.” 

Doctor consultationCredit: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

Why the target is being scrapped

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, the NHS medical director, said: “These proposals were put forward by leading cancer experts and have the support of cancer charities and clinicians. 

“By making sure more patients are diagnosed and treated as early as possible following a referral and replacing the outdated two-week wait target with the faster diagnosis standard already being used across the country, hundreds of patients waiting to have cancer ruled out or diagnosed could receive this news faster. 

“The proposals will also remove the need for unnecessary outpatient appointments in order to comply with waiting times rules, allowing more patients to be referred ‘straight to test’ and the wider deployment of diagnostic technologies including artificial intelligence.”

The move away from the two-week target comes as the NHS announced that nearly three million people have received lifesaving cancer checks in the past year. A quarter of a million people were seen for urgent cancer checks on the NHS in June, which has doubled from 101,592 to 261,000 in a decade.

Recent data from the NHS also showed that 58% of cancers are now diagnosed at stage one or two before they’d spread, which is up 2% since before the pandemic.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England national clinical director for cancer, said: “It’s vital people continue to come forward, so if you have a sign or symptom that you’re worried about, such as a lump, a persistent cough, or prolonged discomfort, please come forward – getting checked out could save your life.”

Worried it’s cancer? Get checked now

If you suspect you have a symptom of cancer, or something just doesn’t feel right, it’s important that you get it checked out as soon as you can. See NHS advice. 

Home bowel cancer test kits are available for everyone aged 60 to 74 and are gradually being rolled out to all over-50s. TV presenter Jeremy Bowen recently issued a warning not to throw away the life-saving test kits.

Cervical screening (a smear test) is offered every five years up to age 64 to spot cell changes early, before they become cancerous. If you’ve had a recent abnormal test, you may be offered it at 65 and older.

Routine breast screening (mammogram) is available every three years if you’re aged between 50 and 71.

Get more support and advice from Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support. The changes to waiting time targets in England might worry you, but they shouldn’t affect your treatment or care. If you would like someone to talk to, call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (open 8am-8pm seven days a week).

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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