Cancer diagnosis gap remains

Tuesday 13th August 2019

NHS statistics released today show poorer Scots are still less likely to be diagnosed with cancer at an early stage than their wealthier counterparts.

The Scottish Government says the most deprived areas saw the biggest increase in diagnosis rates and the gap is narrowing.

But Caner Research UK says the figures are “unacceptable”. The charity is calling for targeted intervention to boost diagnosis rates in the poorest areas.

Detecting cancer early on before it spreads is linked to a higher chance of survival.

However statistics published by NHS Scotland’s Information Division  for 2017 show that 22.6% of people with three common cancers from the most deprived areas were diagnosed at stage one, compared to 29.1% among Scots from the wealthiest areas.

In contrast, least well-off Scots with bowel, breast and lung cancer were most likely to be diagnosed at stage four, which means the cancer has spread beyond the original organ and is hardest to treat.

In 2012 the Scottish Government announced it was aiming to increase number of people diagnosed early by a quarter by 2015 as part of its Detect Cancer Early programme.

However this target is yet to be reached despite high-profile screening campaigns such as Survivors, which includes family members’ stories encouraging people to get checked early.  

Gordon Matheson, Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, said: “It’s welcome that the Detect Cancer Early programme has seen a small increase in the number of people in Scotland being diagnosed early with cancer.

“However, it remains unacceptable that those living in Scotland’s poorer communities have significantly less chance of being diagnosed at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be successful. For this to change it’s essential we see more tailored resources being targeted at Scotland’s poorer communities

“The Scottish Government must also ensure that there’s enough staff to do this vital work, if we are to meet current and future need.”

The chance of early detection varies by cancer – breast cancer is much more likely to be diagnosed early, regardless of socioeconomic status, while lung cancer is overwhelmingly detected at stages three and four. 

healthandcare.scot has previously reported the Scottish Government is considering bringing in shorter waiting times for less survivable cancers such as pancreatic, liver and brain.

Charities say people with these cancers “can’t afford to wait six weeks for treatment.”

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said: “These new figures show an increase in the number of people diagnosed at the earliest stage of bowel, breast and lung cancer in Scotland compared to 2010-11.

“It’s particularly encouraging to see that the largest increase in the proportion of stage one diagnoses of bowel, breast and lung cancers combined, has been in the most deprived areas of Scotland – an 11.8% increase.

"More people are surviving cancer than ever before, with urgent cancer referrals fast tracked. Cancer death rates have decreased by more than 10% in the last decade, and early detection is crucial to this.”

He added: “We are continuing to tackle variations in early detection rates, committing over £1m, to health boards and third sector organisations since 2016, through our Health Inequalities Fund to improve screening uptake in groups least likely to participate.

“We are working to beat cancer, investing over £100m in our strategy as well as an additional £14m supporting health boards to reduce waiting times.”