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‘Skin snaps’ and same day diagnosis among £20million package to get more people checked for cancer

‘Skin snaps’ and same day cancer tests will be rolled out across England to try to save lives, it was revealed today.

NHS bosses have pumped an extra £20million into pilot schemes aimed at speeding up the diagnosis of cancer.  

Under one of the plans, medical photographers or GPs will take pictures of patients’ moles — known as teledermatology, or a ‘skin snap’.

Thousands of patients suspected to have tumours will also be able to get referred directly for MRI scans by nurses, rather than having to wait for an appointment with a consultant.

It comes as health chiefs today said more work is needed to reduce the cancer ‘long waiters’ list.

MPs were told thousands of patients who are suspected of having cancer have been waiting for more than two months to be seen by a specialist.

The pandemic had a huge knock-on effect on cancer treatment in the UK, with top medics fearing the disruption will impact survival rates.

MRI scans can be used to detect a tumour, its size and whether it has spread. The NHS plans to use some of the £20million package to speed up prostate cancer diagnosis by allowing nurses to refer patients for an MRI, rather than having to wait for a consultant to do so 

More work needed to reduce cancer ‘long waiters’ list, MPs told 

More needs to be done to reduce the list of so-called ‘long waiters’ who are waiting to see a hospital specialist, with potential cancer symptoms, MPs have heard.

In England, if a GP suspects a patient has cancer they are urgently referred to see a hospital specialist.

The NHS aims for people to be seen within two weeks of when this referral was made.

But about 16,000 people have been waiting for more than 62 days, the Health and Social Care Committee of MPs heard.

The NHS estimates that about 12 per cent of these, almost 2,000 people, will have cancer.

Meanwhile, officials have estimated that 36,000 fewer people than expected have sought care during the pandemic, either because they do not want to burden the NHS or because they are cautious about being in a health facility.

But the impact the pandemic has had on cancer deaths will not become apparent until 2022, officials told MPs. 

Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for the NHS in England, said that the NHS had maintained cancer treatment at 91 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

But she said that this ‘masks some variation in different tumour types’ – for instance many fewer patients have sought care for lung cancer due to similarities with Covid-19 symptoms.

On the cancer ‘deficit’, she added that there had been an increase in ‘long-waiters’ – those who have waited over 62 days after they have been referred for a diagnosis, and possibly for treatment, if the diagnosis is confirmed. 

Meanwhile Dame Cally said that the health service was ‘concerned’ about the number of people with symptoms of cancer who have not come forward for treatment.   

Meanwhile Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer for the NHS in England, said that he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the NHS could achieve the aim of diagnosing three quarters of cancers at an early stage – a stage where potentially curative treatment might be possible – by 2028.

He said: ‘Now that’s a very stretching objective, our current figure is just under 55% of people (diagnosed) at an early stage.

‘But if we can achieve that then we will be up there with the best of our European comparators.’

Asked if the goal was achievable, he replied: ‘Clearly there was no anticipation of the huge disruption that coronavirus would cause to the health services as a whole when we set that ambition – I am cautiously optimistic. 

‘If they do what we hope they will do, then they will really give us a very rapid leg-up and something which I think will accelerate progress very markedly in the next few years.’ 

The NHS hopes the new funding will help target more patients, helping cancer services manage with higher numbers of people referred.

Under the ‘skin snap’ plans, patients who are suspected to have cancer from a consultant’s image analysis will need an appointment and a biopsy — which should happen within 28 days — to confirm cancer or rule it out.

Skin snaps are already used by NHS medics in Leeds, York and mid-Yorkshire.

People with skin cancer usually develop a new mole or see a change in an existing one. 

Other plans include patients with suspected prostate cancer getting a diagnosis on the same day as their scan and a cancer symptom hotline.   

It will also include a boost for nurse-led ‘lumps and bumps clinics’ that will offer examinations and same day ultrasounds. 

An NHS England spokesperson said the new measures would be put in place ‘as soon as possible’.

NHS chiefs are encouraging people to come forward for a check that they may have put off during the pandemic.

Dame Cally Palmer, the national cancer director at NHS England, said: ‘The NHS has prioritised cancer treatment throughout the coronavirus pandemic and, alongside caring for 405,000 people with coronavirus in hospitals and delivering over 65million vaccines, more than 350,000 people have also started treatment for cancer since it began.

‘We know that some patients did not come forward but, thanks to the huge efforts of our staff, we’re seeing referral and treatment levels recover.

‘From cancer symptom hotlines to skin snaps and rapid triage, NHS staff are once again going to great lengths to ensure that those who are coming forward for checks can continue to be seen quickly, so that cancer can be caught at an earlier stage.’

Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer in England, said: ‘We know that some people were reluctant to seek help during the pandemic so it is good news that we are now seeing higher numbers coming forward for checks.

‘Cancer hasn’t gone away during the pandemic and we would rather see you sooner with a cancer that can be easily treated, than later with one that may be more difficult.

‘Our message remains the same – if you have a worrying symptom, please do get it checked – the NHS is ready for you.’

Speaking at a House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee on NHS cancer services, Dame Palmer said 1,960 people in England currently have cancer that have been waiting 62 days to be diagnosed.

Around 16,000 people have been waiting more than two months for a diagnosis, but 88 per cent of them will not have cancer, she said. 

Dame Palmer said between March 2020 and May this year, cancer treatment was maintained at 91 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

But she said that this ‘masks some variation in different tumour types’ – for instance many fewer patients have sought care for lung cancer due to similarities with Covid-19 symptoms. 

She said 36,000 fewer people than expected in England sought cancer care during the pandemic, either because they do not want to burden the NHS or because they are cautious about being in a health facility. 

Doctors are seeing less patients with early-stage cancer and more with late-stage cancer, which is concerning and could indicate that some patients who have recently developed cancer are not coming forward, she said. 

Dame Palmer said NHS England needs to improve its early diagnosis of cancer patients and removing treatment variation between different ethnic groups and geographies.

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