Background: The '2 week wait' directive (Health Service Circular (HSC) 1998/242) guaranteeing that 'everyone with suspected breast cancer will be able to see a specialist within two weeks of their general practitioner (GP) deciding they need to be seen urgently' is a unique audited approach to access for the British National Health Service, the effects of which have been assessed in a non-academic symptomatic breast clinic.
Methods: New GP referrals (n = 607) were reviewed prospectively in two comparable 3-month intervals, beginning 1 April 1998 and 1 April 1999, to determine the probability of a breast cancer diagnosis from the referral letter and the effects of the directive on waiting times for appointments and utilization of clinics.
Results: The urgency of referral was not specified in 53 per cent of GP referrals. For the 'urgent' cases (25 per cent of all new referrals) the probability of a final diagnosis of breast cancer was 0.19. The breast specialists prospectively achieved a rate of 0.26 from 99 per cent of the same referral letters. 'Urgent' referrals did not wait significantly longer in 1999 (median 9 versus 10 days) but waiting times for new appointments overall increased (13 versus 16 days; P < 0.01), and this was greatest for 'routine'  versus 21 days; P < 0.001). These changes were caused by an increase in the number of clinic appointments, due to significant increases in median number of visits to diagnosis or discharge and clinic non-attendance in 1999, resulting in overbooking. Telephonic communications were associated with faster median access times (fax 8 days; telephone 2 days), relative to mailed  days) (P < 0.01).
Conclusion: Breast specialists were better overall at assessing the probability of a breast cancer diagnosis. The waiting time for 'urgent' appointments was unchanged following HSC 1998/242, but there was an increased wait for other patients, especially those assessed as having a lower probability of cancer.