Cancer care services in Scotland are “struggling”, a leading health charity claimed, as new figures showed a key waiting-time target has not been met for years.
According to official figures, 84.7% of patients referred to hospital between January and March began cancer treatment within 62 days.
While that is an improvement on the same time last year – when 81.4% started treatment in the target time – and on the 83.7% achieved in the final quarter of 2019 , Macmillan Cancer Support said it was now seven years since the Scottish Government’s target of having 95% of patients start treatment within two months was met.
Janice Preston, the charity’s head of services for Scotland, said: “Seven years on since the cancer waiting-times target was last hit, it’s clear this is symptomatic of a cancer care system that is struggling.
“The NHS has been under additional pressure because of coronavirus but these figures are a stark reminder that the system wasn’t working as it should long before the pandemic.
“We need to see the issues behind the missed targets identified and addressed as a matter of urgency or people with cancer will face many more years of delays to diagnosis and treatment.”
Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said it was “deeply concerning that too many people are still waiting too long for cancer treatment”.
She added: “The Health Secretary must listen to patients and staff and taken urgent action to recover all cancer services and treatments impacted by Covid-19.”
The figures also showed almost a quarter of women referred for treatment after cervical screening waited longer than the 62-day target.
The Scottish Government paused smear tests and other cancer screening programmes on March 30 as part of efforts to tackle coronavirus, with cervical cancer screening only just resuming.
Prior to that, the proportion of women treated within two months had fallen.
In the first three months of this year, 77.8% of patients referred after screening started receiving treatment within 62 days – down from 86.4% in the period October to December 2019.
Across Scotland, just two health boards met the target of treating 95% of patients referred with an urgent suspicion of cancer within the target time – NHS Lanarkshire (96.9%) and NHS Borders (95.2%).
Almost three out of ten patients at NHS Orkney waited longer than two months for treatment, with 71.4% starting to receive help within the target time.
There were only two types of cancer where more than 95% of patients started being treated within 62 days – breast cancer (96.6%) and ovarian cancer (97%).
In contrast, this standard was only achieved for 62.7% of patients with urological cancers.
Another cancer waiting-time target was met in the period January to March 2020 – with 96.1% of patients starting treatment within 31 days of a decision being taken on how to treat their disease.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: “These are particularly difficult times and we understand that patients undergoing treatment for cancer will feel especially anxious.
“It is positive that the 31-day standard continued to be met and we progressed towards meeting 62-day standard across Scotland in the period leading up to lockdown despite the extra pressures on our NHS.
“I want to thank all the hospital staff who, through their hard work and dedication, made this possible.
“It should be noted that this data pre-dates the Covid-19 outbreak and does not take into account the impact that Covid-19 has had on the 31 and 62-day standards when NHS boards prepared their mobilisation plans in response.”