Unacceptable endoscopy waiting times put launch of new world-class screening programme at risk

Posted on - 09/02/2018
Author: Communications Team
  • Every month on average during 2017 a quarter of hospitals in England (24%) were in breach of hospital waiting times for endoscopy tests that could diagnose bowel cancer.
  • Approximately 3,000 patients (2,889) every month in England waited more than six weeks for routine tests at their local hospital and more than 2,000 patients (2,379) with suspected cancer waited longer than two weeks for an urgent referral.  
  • Demand for these tests has increased dramatically over the last few years but this has not been matched with extra workforce, leading to an endoscopy crisis.
  • This crisis could lead to delays in the launch of the new, more accurate bowel cancer screening test in England, intended to go-live this April. Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer is calling on NHS England and other governing bodies to ensure there is no delay to introducing this life saving test, and work together on an action plan to address the crisis in staff shortages and unacceptable waiting times for patients.


Today we’re highlighting the scale of the endoscopy crisis in England with statistics published this morning that reveal on average a quarter of hospitals every month last year were in breach of the waiting time standard for endoscopy tests that could diagnose bowel cancer.


The waiting times published by NHS England is further evidence that demand for diagnostic tests is outstripping capacity. Every month during the whole of 2017, approximately 3,000 patients (2,889) on average were waiting more than six weeks for endoscopy tests at their local hospital in England, whilst every month on average over 2,000 patients (2,379) with suspected cancer are waiting longer than two weeks for an urgent referral.


Many hospitals are at breaking point because they simply do not have the capacity to meet growing demand. A lack of funding, limited resources and a shortage of staff to carry out procedures are contributing to this.


A report, published in January 2018, commissioned by UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC), shows the lack of endoscopy capacity is the single biggest constraining factor to implementing a world-class bowel cancer screening programme. The report also outlines recommendations for the ideal screening programme, which includes lowering the screening age from 60-74 to 50-74 in England, in line with Scotland and international best practice, as well as rolling out the new screening test, Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT).


In November 2017, NHS England confirmed plans to introduce FIT, which is more accurate, easier to use and has proven to increase uptake. The new test is due to be rolled out in April this year but many hospitals are already struggling to deal with the amount of people being referred for endoscopy. The charity is gravely concerned that the endoscopy crisis could delay the launch of the new screening test, which Scotland already successfully rolled out in November 2017.


Screening remains one of the most effective ways of detecting bowel cancer in its earliest stages, when treatment has the best chance of success. Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer but it shouldn’t be; it’s treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early. More than nine in 10 (98%) will survive for five years or more if they are diagnosed at the first stage but currently only 15% actually are.


Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer, says: “We know that screening is the best way to detect bowel cancer at the earliest stage when it gives us the greatest chance of survival and the UK NSC report sets out some important recommendations for how we could have an even more effective screening programme and potentially save more lives. That’s why the possibility of a delay to implementing this life-saving test is simply unacceptable.


“The benefits of FIT are well established – it can detect twice as many cancers and four times as many advanced adenomas than the current screening test. As such it has a vital role to play in improving survival rates for the UK’s second biggest cancer killer. But the NHS must be given the resource to make this a reality.”


Lauren Backler, age 27 from Eastbourne, started a petition to call for Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jeremy Hunt MP, to lower the screening age to 50 after her mum died from bowel cancer at 55 years old. She says: “My family was dealt an earth shattering blow when my mum was diagnosed with bowel cancer. She was 55 at the time, and we were told soon after, that the cancer was terminal. If we lived in Scotland, where the bowel cancer screening programme starts from 50 years old, my mum would have already been screened three times before she was diagnosed, increasing her chances of survival.”


  • Read our blog on the key findings of the UK NSC report and what it means for bowel cancer screening
  • Sign up as a campaign supporter and help us to improve early diagnosis
  • Share your experiences of delayed testing that could diagnose bowel cancer