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Head and neck cancer services

Investment in redesigned and accelerated diagnosis

A new diagnostic pathway for head and neck cancer will help ensure patients have cancer ruled in or out faster.

Scotland’s Head and Neck Optimal Cancer Diagnostic Pathway, designed by clinical experts, sets out a new model for NHS Scotland to deliver an effective and efficient service.

This will allow resources to be targeted at patients with cancer - removing non-cancer patients from the pathway earlier – and improve the quality, safety, and effectiveness of care.

Head and neck cancers are relatively uncommon although incidence rates have increased gradually in the last ten years, with around 1,300 cases in Scotland diagnosed each year.

Head and neck cancers encompass more than 30 areas within the head and neck including the mouth, lip, tongue, and nose.

The new pathway sets dedicated timeframes for each step of the diagnostic process to enable diagnosis by day 30 and treatment to start by day 62.

It was developed through the Centre for Sustainable Delivery (CfSD), a national unit designed to sustainably improve and transform Scotland's health care system.

Health Secretary Michael Matheson, said:

“Following considerable engagement from clinical teams across NHS Scotland I am pleased to see the publication of Scotland’s Head and Neck Optimal Cancer Diagnostic Pathway.
“As set out in our recently published Cancer Plan, cancer remains a national priority for the NHS and Scottish Government. This new, gold standard, pathway will enhance the efficiency of head and neck cancer services and provide improved experiences and outcomes for patients.”

The Scottish Government’s Detect Cancer Earlier (DCE) Programme has provided around £1.8 million of funding to support implementation of the new pathway.

Boards will use the money to re-align services so patients can receive multiple tests - where clinically appropriate, at the one time - reducing their visits to hospital and speeding up time to diagnosis.

Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, Dr Sorcha Hume, said:

“We welcome the optimal head and neck cancer diagnostic pathway for Scotland. We hope this new pathway will help to ensure patients have access to the right treatment as soon as possible, regardless of where they live.
“We support this initiative which we hope will ensure an earlier, more managed diagnosis to improve the experience of patients and their families.”


Scotland’s Cancer Plan was published in June 2023, including a new earlier diagnosis ambition to reduce later stage disease by 18% over the next 10 years.

This press release was issued by the Scottish Government on 11 January 2024.

Posted: January 11, 2024

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