Around 1,100 people in England could miss out on the chance of an early stage bowel cancer diagnosis through screening each year because of NHS staff shortages, according to new calculations released by Cancer Research UK today.*
Bowel cancer screening tests look for hidden blood in the stool which can be an early sign of bowel cancer. But the new test, known as FIT, does not provide a simple yes or no answer.
It is up to the individual health systems to decide what level of haemoglobin - a protein found in blood - warrants further investigation, usually a colonoscopy. And this is where patients are missing out on potentially life-saving early diagnoses largely due to a lack of specialist staff.
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NHS England and NHS Scotland have chosen different cut-off points for a referral following a screening test - 120 and 80 micrograms of haemoglobin per gram of faeces respectively. This means that in Scotland, the NHS refers people who have between 80 and 120 micrograms of haemoglobin, when the NHS in England does not.
And this equates to around 1,100 bowel cancers that could be diagnosed through the bowel cancer screening programme each year in England but are not.
The impact is even higher when we consider the number of pre-cancerous growths that could be detected and removed during a colonoscopy.
Cancer Research UK has calculated that if the NHS in England referred people with the same hidden blood levels as Scotland, there could be an additional 2,000 colonoscopies each month in England.** Although many of these would not turn out to be cancer, the NHS in England does not have enough endoscopists - people who look inside the body with a camera - nurses and other specialist staff to handle this.
Already one in 10 diagnostic posts are vacant in England. And the demand for staff is rising. Around 363,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK but by 2035, that is likely to increase to around half a million people.***
When bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, as it can be through screening, more than 9 in 10 people survive their disease for at least five years. But when it is detected in the late stages, survival falls to less than 1 in 10.****
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of early diagnosis, said: "The UK's bowel cancer screening programme is very effective at detecting cancer early. But we're concerned that NHS staff shortages are having a direct impact on the ability to diagnose more patients at an early stage - something that the Government committed to doing last year. People shouldn't be slipping through the net.