Women with suspected breast cancer in south west Hertfordshire are waiting longer to be seen by a specialist, according to figures released by the trust in charge of Watford General Hospital.
West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust has missed its two-week target for five consecutive months for women with symptoms that could be breast cancer.
The trust’s chief executive, Samantha Jones, partly blamed its worsening performance on the soap EastEnders saying there has been a rise in referrals following the Carol Jackson breast cancer story line.
NHS guidelines state that 93 per cent of patients with symptoms of the deadly disease must be seen within 14 days of being referred by their GP.
Figures showed from April to December last year trust hit the target most months. However since January it has not hit the target and by May the number being seen within two weeks had slumped to just 32 per cent.
The longest wait for a woman displaying potential signs of breast cancer was between three and four weeks. The trust said the waiting figures were provisional an may change after a future review.
Actress Lindsey Coulson playing breast cancer sufferer Carol Jackson in EastEnders
Ms Jones, chief executive of the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "We would like to apologise to any patients who have had to wait longer to see a cancer specialist than they should have done.
"In common with many other trusts we have seen a growing demand for our cancer services over the past year, and a particularly significant increase in referrals for cancer over the last few months, which has been linked in part to a storyline in the TV soap EastEnders.
"To meet this extra demand we have put together a comprehensive cancer plan to ensure that, by October, we are meeting all the national cancer standards and providing a much improved experience for our patients and their families.
Ms Jones added: "As part of this work, we are increasing our capacity across the whole range of cancer services in order to be able to provide more outpatient clinics, and carry out more X Rays, blood tests and other diagnostic procedures.
"We are also working closely with Herts Valleys Clinical Commissioning Group, the GP led organisation which buys our services, to ensure that patients are being referred to us appropriately."
In a performance report presented to the trust's board, it said: "It should be noted that whilst there are delays in being assessed for suspected breast cancer, patients diagnosed with breast cancer receive their treatment within the 31 and 62 day standards currently.
"The service has the capacity to see 70 new patients a week and is currently receiving 95 new referrals a week. Two additional clinics are needed to keep pace with the referrals. 7 extra clinics are needed to review all patients referred with suspected cancer who have waited over 2 weeks, the longest wait being 3-4 weeks."
Samantha Jones, chief executive of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust
However, in July, the same report showed that the trust was missing all of its cancer waiting targets and performance was declining in all of the assessed areas.
Once a patient has been referred to a specialist by a GP, they should receive their treatment within 62 days. However, the trust is only seeing 71% of patients with 62 days, 14 per cent short of the national target of 85 per cent.
Patients who are diagnosed with cancer are also waiting too long for treatment, with 91 per cent receiving treatment within 31 days, five per cent short of the national target.