CANCER waiting times are the poorest for a decade amid fears staff shortages in the NHS is impacting on treatments.

New figures show that just 13 per cent of patients urgently referred to cancer specialists fail to begin treatment within the target time of 62 days - a three per cent deterioration on the previous year.

The biggest falls were in lymphoma, urological and head and neck cancers.

Only three of the 14 NHS boards in Scotland met the two-month objective – NHS Lanarkshire, NHS Dumfries and Galloway and NHS Orkney. 

Health Secretary Shona Robison has announced plans to set up an expert group to improve diagnosis and treatment waiting times as she conceded that currently "some waits are too long".

Stressing that waiting times are now the worst since they began being recorded in 2007, Janice Preston, head of charity Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "Waiting to start treatment is an incredibly stressful time for most people.

HeraldScotland:

"Waiting to start treatment is an incredibly stressful time for most people. It's vital the reasons behind these delays are understood and a solution found.

"But we need a long term solution, not a temporary fix. The cancer care system must adapt to meet the challenge of supporting the vastly increased numbers of people with cancer."

She added: “A number of health boards are reporting capacity issues which Macmillan thinks could be at the heart of the problem.

“There seems to be a real issue at the beginning of the cancer journey but until each of the health boards publishes their reasons, it is very difficult to try to find a solution.

But the NHS in Scotland only narrowly missed a target for starting treatment within a month of a decision being made that this was necessary.

The target is that 95% of patients should wait no more than 31 days after the decision is made to treat them, but this was achieved for 94.8% of patients in April to June.

Ten of the 15 NHS Boards met the 31 day standard. The five that did not were NHS Grampian, NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde, NHS Lanarkshire, NHS Lothian and NHS Tayside.

Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK's senior public affairs manager in Scotland, added: "It's clear some patients in Scotland are still waiting far too long for diagnosis and treatment which is a worrying and familiar picture.

HeraldScotland:

"An early diagnosis, followed by speedy treatment, improves a patient's chances of beating the disease and these targets can help bring about that earlier diagnosis.

"There is variation in the performance between some health board areas, and it's concerning to see differences in how long patients may expect to be seen in different parts of the country."

NHS Forth Valley which had the second worst record in meeting the 62 day standard with nearly one in five patients not treated in time, said there was a shortage of radiologists and were investigating joint working with NHS Lanarkshire.

NHS Grampian which had the third worst record with 17.7 per cent of referrals failing to meet the standard, said it was facing "ongoing recruitment challenges to medical posts" and "ongoing bed capacity pressures affecting diagnostic tests requiring admission".

The NHS board with the worst record was NHS Western Isles with nearly one in three referrals failing to meet the 62 day standard, although it involved just 17 cases. They were among seven that did not publish reasons for failing to meet the standard.

Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs described the figures as "inexcusable", while the Liberal Democrats' Alex Cole-Hamilton said the 62-day target had not been met for five years.

The Health Secretary Shona Robison stressed she was "determined to go further" to help cancer patients.

She announced a a new delivery group is to be set up to improve waiting times for diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients - conceding that currently "some waits are too long".

HeraldScotland: Health Secretary Shona Robison. Photograph by Colin Mearns

The Scottish Government said it will provide £1 million of funding to to roll-out new technology which will allow consultants to report on diagnostic scans taken anywhere in the country, with Ms Robison saying this would help "address short-falls in capacity in some areas".

In addition ministers are also providing £3 million to increase the number of radiology trainees in Scotland by a minimum of 50 over the next five years.

The Health Secretary stressed she was "determined to go further" to help cancer patients.