SEVERE shortages of key NHS staff could delay a Government pledge to lower the bowel cancer screening age from 60 to 50 – putting lives at risk.
The Sun’s No Time 2 Lose campaign called for screening to start at 50 not 60, as is currently the case and in August Matt Hancock, health secretary announced it would happen.
Prime Minister Theresa May told the Tory Party conference earlier this month the move will help spot cancer sooner.
It means an extra 7.5million Brits will get the chance to avoid getting bowel cancer – or have it diagnosed at a stage when it can be cured.
But experts say new NHS figures show the health service is already unable to cope with screening at 60 – let alone from 50.
Bowel cancer is the 2nd deadliest form of the disease, claiming around 16,000 lives a year.
But it CAN be cured, if it’s caught early enough.
Fewer than one in ten people survive bowel cancer if it’s diagnosed at stage 4, but detected quickly, more than nine in ten patients will live five years or longer.
That’s why The Sun joined forces with campaigners including Lauren Backler, who lost her mum to the disease in her 50s, and leading charity Bowel Cancer UK to call on the Government to lower the screening age.
And while the announcement marked a victory for campaigners, NHS England are yet to agree a date when screening will be offered to people on their 50th birthdays.
Currently bowel cancer screening tests are offered to everyone aged 60 to 74, every two years.
When a test detects abnormalities, a person will see a doctor and can be referred for further tests including colonoscopy – where a camera is inserted into the bowels to look for tumours.
But NHS figures, published today, show each month this year, one in four NHS hospitals have failed to hit waiting times for the potentially life-saving test – which should be carried out within six weeks.
In August that number peaked at 35 per cent of hospitals – with nearly 5,000 patients left waiting.
Bowel Cancer UK said demand for colonscopy tests has doubled since 2008 due to an ageing population, increase in awareness of symptoms and the start of the screening programme.
But they warned many hospitals are at breaking point, and simply do not have the capacity to meet this soaring demand.
The charity said a lack of funding, limited resources and a shortage of staff has all culminated in a capacity crisis, that must be addressed.
I’m so pleased screening from 50 for bowel cancer is on its way. But this won’t become a reality until extra staff and resources are in place
BBC newsreader and bowel cancer patient, George Alagiah
Deborah Alsina, CEO of the charity, told The Sun, the Government must invest in the workforce if screening at 50 is to become a reality.
“These waiting times present a worrying picture for patients and demonstrate the urgent need for the Government to make addressing this capacity crisis a national priority,” she said today.
“Particularly as the Prime Minister reiterated the Government’s commitment to lower the bowel cancer screening age from 60 to 50 in her conference speech.
“For far too long NHS services have been facing significant demand, leading to thousands of patients waiting for crucial tests.
“It is well known that demand for an endoscopy test will only increase.
“The Government must finally get to grips with this problem.
“That’s why we’re calling for a fully-funded action plan to help end the capacity crisis.”
Lauren Backler, whose mum Fiona died of bowel cancer at 53, said the staffing shortages are putting lives at risk.
“If staff shortages aren’t addressed the introduction of screening from 50 will be delayed, meaning more lives may be lost.”
Meanwhile, BBC newsreader George Alagiah, who revealed he was undergoing treatment for bowel cancer for the second time earlier this year, said: “I’m so pleased screening from 50 for bowel cancer is on its way.
“But this won’t become a reality until extra staff and resources are in place.
“That’s why we need a fully funded plan to end the capacity crisis.”
WHAT IS THE FIT TEST?
THERE are currently two different types of screening tests used in the UK, the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) and the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) – both test for blood in your poo, a red flag sign of bowel cancer.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland offer the FOBT test while Scotland introduced the FIT test in November 2017.
The FIT test is set to be rolled out in England this autumn, according to NHS England and in Wales in 2019.
It’s used to detect traces of blood in a single stool sample and can be done from the comfort of your own home.
An abnormal result suggests there is bleeding in your intestinal area and requires further investigation by a doctor.
It’s more effective than the current FOBT test, and requires just one poo sample – rather than three.
Pilot studies in Scotland suggest this increases the uptake rate by 10 per cent.
Bowel Cancer UK said the development of the NHS 10-Year plan, the £20bn funding announcement for the NHS and the autumn budget are the “perfect opportunities” for the Government to act.
And leading medical experts agree.
Prof Colin Rees, a spokesman for the British Society of Gastroenterology, said bowel cancer is a disease that should NOT be killing patients.
“By testing the right people at the right time we can save lives, and achieve this ultimate goal,” he said.
“However a huge rise in demand over recent years has put major pressure on diagnostic services.
THERE'S NO TIME 2 LOSE
“This hasn’t been met with adequate training of more staff to undertake these tests, so hospitals are struggling.
“It is imperative that we both expand endoscopy services and use current resources in the best way possible.
“A fully-funded action plan to tackle this issue would be a step in the right direction.”
The Sun has contacted NHS England for comment.
Bowel Cancer UK has launched a petition to urge the Government to address the capacity crisis, and will present thousands of signatures to the Department of Health on Monday – sign the petition here.