How do family doctors respond to reduced waiting times for cancer diagnosis in secondary care?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reducing waiting times is a priority in public health systems. Efforts of healthcare providers to shorten waiting times could be negated if they simultaneously induce substantial increases in demand. However, separating out the effects of changes in supply and demand on waiting times requires an exogenous change in one element. We examine the impact of a pilot programme in some English hospitals to shorten waiting times for urgent diagnosis of suspected cancer on family doctors’ referrals.

We examine referrals from 6,666 family doctor partnerships to 145 hospitals between 1st April 2012 and 31st March 2019. Five hospitals piloted shorter waiting times initiatives in 2017. Using continuous difference-in-differences regression, we exploit the pilot as a ‘supply shifter’ to estimate the effect of waiting times on referral volumes for two suspected cancer types: bowel and lung.

The proportion of referred patients breaching two-week waiting times targets for suspected bowel cancer fell by 3.9 percentage points in pilot hospitals in response to the policy, from a baseline of 4.8%. Family doctors exposed to the pilot increased their referrals (demand) by 10.8%. However, the pilot was not successful for lung cancer, with some evidence that waiting times increased, and a corresponding reduction in referrals of -10.5%.

Family doctor referrals for suspected cancer are responsive at the margin to waiting times. Healthcare providers may struggle to achieve long-term reductions in waiting times if supply-side improvements are offset by increases in demand.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe European Journal of Health Economics
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2023


  • Waiting times
  • Demand elasticity
  • Early detection of cancer
  • Referrals
  • Family doctors


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