Increased waiting times for vital cancer tests have put more pressure on GPs at a time when 38% said their practice was finding it tough to meet demand for remote consultations, and 35% said the same for face-to-face appointments.  

The survey by Cancer Research UK of 1,004 UK GPs, who were asked about their experiences in October, found the majority had also seen an increase in waiting times for tests commonly used to help diagnose cancer.

NHS England diagnostic waiting time data shows the number of patients waiting six weeks or more for key tests has surged since March.

By the end of October, there were nine times more people waiting six weeks or more for an endoscopy test compared to end of October 2019 (more than 110,000 in 2020 versus around 12,500 in 2019), although this has improved since the worst point at the end of August.

And while the number of patients waiting six weeks or more for radiology tests (ultrasounds MRI and CT scans) has dropped since its peak in May, there are still 11 times more people (around 14,000 in October 2019 versus around 150,000 in October 2020) than last year. 

Dr Jodie Moffat, Cancer Research UK’s head of early diagnosis, said: “GPs and NHS staff have worked incredibly hard during this challenging year to manage the increased strain Covid-19 has put on an already stretched system. But many patients are still a long way off receiving the swift cancer diagnoses that will give them the best chance of being treated successfully, and worryingly we don’t yet know what the long-term impact on cancer stage and survival will be.

“It’s crucial the government uses the cash boost set aside in the spending review for the NHS to sort the backlog of cancer patients.” 

Vulnerable patient groups left behind by remote consultations

The analysis comes at a time when four in five doctors in the UK (83%) are worried that if there is an expectation for more appointments to be delivered remotely after Covid-19, some vulnerable patient groups may get left behind.

The survey by Medical Protection of 1250 UK doctors found that 70% agreed that the benefits of telemedicine have been unquestionable during Covid-19, and that it will remain a fundamental tool in practice. However, 83% raised concerns about patients whose access to remote services may be impacted by factors such as digital literacy, disability, language, location or internet connection.

80% of the doctors surveyed went on to say they are concerned that if some patients feel excluded from telemedicine, this may result in a breakdown in the doctor/patient relationship, or conditions being left untreated.  76% also said they are generally more worried about missing something in a remote consultation, with 60% saying they are more worried about a claim or investigation arising.