Pathology services 'bottleneck' causing delays in diagnosing cancer

Posted by Samantha Ward on

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It has been encouraging in recent years to see the many initiatives promoted in the media, and at healthcare delivery points across the country, to raise awareness of the importance of identifying early signs of cancer.  We are urged to go to our GP with any symptoms of concern; that annoying tickly cough you've had for more than three weeks,  those  embarrassing urinary symptoms that are starting to affect your daily life.  We have a number of excellent, well established screening programmes available nationally such as smear tests  for cervical cancer, mammography for breast cancer and the postal 'poo on a stick' test for bowel cancer.

All of this of course is very positive for a population with a much higher chance of developing cancer than generations past as a result of living longer.   Treatment for many cancers is constantly being developed and improved and, statistically speaking we have a much higher chance of surviving cancer than compared to only 10 years ago, particularly if it is picked up at an early stage.  However, a recent report by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has highlighted that the growing demand for interpretation of screening tests is not being met by a corresponding increase in numbers of pathology staff to meet this need.  As the number of new cases of cancer rises, demands for diagnostic testing, including interpretation of blood and tissue samples will increase.  This demand must be met by efficient pathology services if the UK is to increase national cancer survival rates by treating cases as early as possible.

It is a sad fact that a fair proportion of clinical negligence cases concern delays in diagnosing cancer.  Whilst not all of these cases involve pathology services it is worth bearing in mind the comments from  Emma Greenwood, CRUK’s director of policy, who notes “diagnostic services, including pathology, urgently need support and investment to ensure that diagnoses aren’t delayed and patients benefit from the latest treatment.  The UK’s cancer survival is lagging behind other European countries and improving early diagnosis through diagnostic services is one of the ways to address this. The diagnostic bottleneck will only get worse without action now and this involves addressing staff shortages in imaging, endoscopy and pathology.”

(all details are correct at the time of publishing)

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Sam is a Registered Nurse with 17 years' experience working in the NHS. She uses her medical and nursing knowledge and experience to liaise with clients.

Samantha Ward
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