A RECORD number patients in Scotland are waiting too long for key tests and scans needed to diagnose cancer.

Around one in five people referred for checks including CT scans, MRIs and colonoscopies were waiting more than six weeks in the final quarter of 2017.

In December 2017, a record 15,956 patients had been waiting longer than six weeks for one of the eight key diagnostic tests, up from 3,554 in December 2015.

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Early diagnosis is key to improving survival rates from cancer, but the NHS is under pressure from a steady increase in cancer cases, largely driven by the ageing population, and a shortage of clinicians such as radiologists needed to carry out the tests.

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Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s senior public affairs manager in Scotland, said: “These statistics paint a picture of a service struggling to keep up with growing demand.

"Waiting to find out if you do or don’t have cancer can cause huge anxiety to patients.

“Staff shortages are partly to blame and the recent initiative to recruit more radiologists will go some way to alleviate current pressures.

"But a more urgent plan for all diagnostic staff is also needed.

"This could include upskilling some workers, introducing flexible contracts to retain consultants considering retirement, as well as offering incentives for skilled staff to work in health board areas where shortages are particularly acute.”

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The waiting time target, which was cut from nine to six weeks by the Scottish Government in 2009, applies to CT and MRI scans, non-obstetric ultrasounds used to detect conditions such as ovarian cancer, and barium studies.

It also includes upper and lower endoscopies, colonoscopies, and cystoscopies which examine patients for tumours or other abnormalities in their abdomen, bowel or bladder.

Between December 2016 and December 2017, the percentage of patients in Scotland undergoing a cystoscopy within six weeks fells from 73.4 per cent to 48.9 per cent.

There were similar declines in the turnaround time for colonoscopies - from 72.5 per cent to 58.6 per cent - and performance for MRI and CT scans also deteriorated year-on-year, with the number of patients being seen on time falling by five and eight per cent respectively.

There were also huge gulfs in performance between health boards, with more than 95 per cent of patients in NHS Dumfries and Galloway undergoing tests within the six-week target in December 2017, while more than one in three patients (35 per cent) in neighbouring NHS Ayrshire and Arran waited more than six weeks.

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Janice Preston, head of cancer charity Macmillan Services in Scotland, said: “Ensuring that people are diagnosed as quickly as possible is vital in both supporting patients and boosting the chances of survival.

“Cancer waiting times haven’t been met since 2012 and these latest statistics add to a growing issue that must be addressed head on and a solution found."

In December 2017, around one in five patients (82.5 per cent) in Scotland were also waiting more than 18 weeks from referral to start of treatment.

This covers any inpatient surgeries, not only for cancer, as well as day case procedures. The Scottish Government's performance target is 90 per cent, but this was last met in June 2014.

Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “The Scottish Government has made £4.85 million of funding available to support access to diagnostics for suspected cancer patients, including £2 million for improvements to scopes alone.

“I have made it clear to Boards that they must continue to treat these patients with the highest priority.”