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More than 1,000 patients missing out on early bowel cancer diagnosis

Charity says there aren’t enough NHS staff to carry out tests

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, an analysis shows.

Bowel cancer screening tests look for hidden blood in the stool which can be an early sign of bowel cancer, however 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.

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, whereas the NHS in England does not.

According to Cancer Research UK, 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.

It said the impact is even higher when considering the number of pre-cancerous growths that could be detected and removed during a colonoscopy.

The charity 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, nurses and other specialist staff to handle this, it said.

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, more than nine in 10 people survive their disease for at least five years. When it is detected in the late stages, survival falls to less than one in 10.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said NHS staff shortages are having a direct impact on the ability to diagnose more patients at an early stage.

“People shouldn’t be slipping through the net,” she added. “Improvements to cancer screening in the UK need to be made quickly and safely to ensure the NHS can diagnose people earlier.”