Unclear if cancer test funding is being used as intended

Cancer Research UK

NHS funding designed to improve cancer early diagnosis might not be reaching the right services, according to a new report.

The report highlights how variable the use of diagnostic testing is in different parts of England, and suggests funding might have been spent elsewhere in the NHS. 

Sara Bainbridge, lead author of the report and from Cancer Research UK, said: “We want funding to be ringfenced to ensure people can get the tests they need on time. Early diagnosis is crucial so it’s important we use this opportunity to create a world-class cancer service in the NHS.”

When a cancer is diagnosed earlier more treatment options are available, and are more likely to be successful. Only around half of cancers are diagnosed at the earliest stages (1 or 2) in England.  

The 2015 cancer plan made early diagnosis a priority for the Government and for NHS England.

Up to £300m more each year was promised for diagnostic services by 2020. Demand on these already stretched services is predicted to continue to rise.

The latest report measured the progress that has been made, using survey responses from 106 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), NHS bodies responsible for healthcare in their area. 

Nine in 10 CCGs were aware of the guidance to ensure “adequate diagnostic capacity” to meet the needs of patients,  according to the report. But many couldn’t provide figures on the past demand for diagnostic services or forecast future levels. Information on funding and waiting times were also often missing. 

And despite the additional funding allocated to CCGs, 7 of the 24 CCGs that provided their budgets in the survey reported a decrease in diagnostic spending between 2015/16 and 2016/17.

The report recommends that NHS England and the Department of Health should hold CCGs to account for improving diagnostic services, and that future funding increases be ringfenced.

“Both the NHS and the Government have made early diagnosis of cancer a priority - but more staff and kit are essential to make this a reality,” said Bainbridge. “Our report shows that it’s unclear whether local budgets are putting diagnostic services at the top of the agenda. And some areas have no definite plans to boost diagnostic capacity.”

She added that without sufficient diagnostic capacity England will continue to lag behind other countries in cancer survival.