Published: 14/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5951 Page 25

The government has pledged that no patient will wait more than a month for cancer services, from urgent referral to treatment. A Dr Foster survey of all cancer patients receiving surgery in England in the fourth quarter of last year reveals considerable variation in length of waiting times between strategic health authorities. We compared performance on three indicators:

The number of patients diagnosed with cancer waiting more than a month for surgery from the decision to admit, excluding the outpatient wait.

The average number of days waited.

The percentage change in patients waiting more than three months.

The figures are based on the 10 most commonly diagnosed cancers and are calculated from NHSWide Clearing Service provisional data.

The first chart shows the SHAs with an initial waiting period for cancer treatment longer than the 26-day average. There is considerable variation. For example, 40 per cent of those admitted are waiting over 30 days in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire SHA, compared with a national average of 23 per cent.

The good news is that from the third to fourth quarter there was a 6 per cent fall in the median of those waiting longer than 30 days, thanks to 19 SHAs cutting the number of patients waiting more than 30 days. Only two SHAs experienced an increase: Cumbria and Lancashire and Thames Valley, with 3 and 7 per cent respectively.

The second chart shows the SHAs with the average longest and shortest waiting times for the 10 cancers with the longest waiting times. There are considerable differences between SHAs in waiting times for the same condition. For example, the wait for urinary tract infection treatment varies from 73 to 19 days between Country Durham and Tees Valley and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear SHAs respectively.

The third chart shows that, for the 10 most prevalent cancers, there has been an upward trend in waiting times for surgery since 2001. The median long-term wait for all cancers in 2001 was 24.6 days and increased to 25.5 days in 2004.

Encouragingly, the waiting times for the majority of cancers are below the target of 30 days. However, three cancer types - male genital organs, urinary tract infection and skin - are well above the 30-day target, with skin cancer showing no notable downward trend in average waiting times since 2001. .

Dr Marc Farr is product development manager at Dr Foster (phone 020-7256 4916 or visit www.

drfoster. co. uk). The next Dr Foster page is on 12 May and will cover emergency admissions.