NHS England has today announced that new waiting times standards for people with urgent mental and physical needs are to be trialled across the country under NHS pilot schemes.

The new standards, which are aimed at providing rapid assessment and treatment for patients with serious health conditions, include that people with suspected cancer should receive a definitive diagnosis within 28 days.

Currently in England, patients referred by their GP with suspected breast cancer should be seen by a specialist within two weeks – and this waiting time target also exists for women referred by their doctor with breast symptoms where cancer is not initially suspected.

The new proposals would therefore see a change from the current standard for breast cancer, which measures time from GP referral to first appointment with a specialist (two weeks maximum), to an updated standard which measures time from GP referral to diagnosis or cancer being ruled out (28 days maximum). Figures show that the current standards have been met by NHS trusts for the majority of the time they have been in place, although this has slipped in the last year.

For both women referred with suspected breast cancer and women referred with breast symptoms where cancer is not initially suspected, best practice is for them to receive all of their tests in one appointment as part of a triple assessment – and it is therefore expected that many women will receive a diagnosis in their first appointment or soon after.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: 

These measures represent potentially significant changes to breast cancer waiting time targets and we are reassured to see that they being introduced gradually to give time for sufficient testing and to understand their full impact.

The current ‘two-week wait’ for breast cancer has been hugely successful in transforming the experiences of people referred to a specialist to investigate their symptoms. With these proposals representing a shift to instead give reassurance of a 28-day wait for diagnosis, it’s vital we ensure they will further improve patient experience and build on years of progress.

Being referred with breast symptoms can be an incredibly worrying time for thousands of women and their families, and it’s critical that they are given answers and can begin treatment or be given peace of mind as soon as possible. 

We’re also encouraged to see that women referred with breast symptoms where cancer is not suspected would be covered by the new 28-day target, as many of these women may have developed breast cancer. It’s crucial the impact of waiting times on the lives of this major group of women is not forgotten as these new standards are trialled.

We look forward to the results of these pilots to ensure that any decision to roll-out these measures nationally is based on evidence that they tangibly improve time to diagnosis and do not leave women with breast symptoms waiting longer. It remains absolutely essential that the views of patients and women at risk of breast cancer are gathered and taken into account before a long-term decision is made about whether to replace the landmark two-week wait with a 28-day target nationally.

Following the announcement that the two-week wait for breast cancer will be provisionally replaced by a new 28-day standard as part of the pilot schemes, Breast Cancer Now is planning to survey patients and women at risk of breast cancer to ensure their voices are heard as part of this work.