Shorter radiotherapy waiting times 'saving 2,500 lives a year'

In collaboration with the Press Association

Cuts to radiotherapy waiting times are saving around 2,500 lives annually in England, according to a letter published online in the British Medical Journal.

Authors Dr Saif Ahmad, from Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, and Dr Neil Burnet from Cambridge University's Department of Oncology, say cutting delays in patients receiving radiotherapy can mean that tumours have less time to progress, increasing the chances of immediate improvement and long-term survival.

Dr Burnet said: "Radiotherapy is a cost effective treatment second only to surgery as a curative treatment for cancer, but it's essential that patients are treated promptly to gain the maximum benefit. We estimate that, compared to 10 years ago, this improvement in waiting times will save approximately 2,500 lives per year."

Previously, some patients have had to wait as long as 16 weeks before receiving treatment, with data from a 2003 national audit showing fewer than one in three (30 per cent) were treated with 28 days.

To combat this, in 2007 the National Radiotherapy Implementation Group (NRIG), working with the Government, set a target of treating cancer patients with radiotherapy within 31 days, to be achieved by December 2010.

Recent analysis from the Department of Health shows that 97.8 per cent of patients are now treated within the target time.

Dr Ahmad said: "While this reduction in waiting times is very good news for patients, it is essential the NHS continues to invest in cutting edge treatment. New techniques, such as intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), can deliver radiotherapy far more precisely.

"IMRT improves treatment effectiveness while reducing side-effects for patients. IMRT should be available in every radiotherapy centre in the UK by the end of 2012 and it's critical we meet this target if we are to save even more lives."

Hilary Tovey, Cancer Research UK's policy manager, said: "This is fantastic news and shows just how much difference we can make by focusing our resources on improving radiotherapy services across the country. Radiotherapy is a crucial part of cancer treatment, and the UK is a world leader in radiotherapy research, which is why Cancer Research UK is calling on the Government to strive to make our services among the best in the world.

"Sadly, we know that there are some patients who are still missing out on radiotherapy, and that the latest radiotherapy treatments aren't available to all patients across the country. We want to ensure that all patients not only know how important radiotherapy is in treating their cancer, but that they will be offered access to the best possible treatments, regardless of where in the country they live."

Copyright Press Association 2011