Staff shortages are forcing UK doctors to choose which cancer patients to treat immediately

Cancer patients’ chances of survival are falling due to treatment delays in England as staff shortages force doctors to choose which patients they can treat immediately, an expert clinician has warned.

The Royal College of Radiologists, along with professional bodies representing cancer doctors, nurses and pharmacists, wrote to UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay to express “serious concerns about the lack of capacity within oncology wards”.

They said many departments had to make “difficult decisions about whether to deny access to approved treatments or prioritize which patients can receive treatment in a safe time to the detriment of others”.

For each month that a patient delayed starting treatment, the risk of death increased by about 10 percent. “This type of waiting is now unfortunately routine,” the letter added.

The state of the NHS will be a crucial battleground in next year’s general election. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has listed reducing wait times for treatment as one of the “five priorities” he expects voters to judge him on.

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The latest performance figures from NHS England show that for the first time since the start of the epidemic, the number of people waiting more than two months to start cancer treatment after receiving an urgent referral has fallen.

However, at the end of March, almost 20,000 people waited longer than the set 62 days. NHS England has seen a record number of suspected cancer referrals over the past two years.

Meanwhile, the long-delayed NHS workforce plan, the first for 20 years, is expected to be published within the next few weeks.

In their letter to Barclay, the signatories, which include the Association of Oncologists, the British Oncology Pharmacy Association and the UK Oncology Nursing Society, said demand for cancer treatment was growing by around 6-8 per cent a year, partly due to rising incidence. cancers, but also because the NHS has made more treatments available.

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, about 92 percent of anticancer drugs submitted to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which evaluates the value for money, were approved, compared to 60 percent in 2011-2012, the College said.

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However, the lack of equivalent investment or support for the oncology workforce meant that departments could not keep pace. Oncology teams “must create capacity in a way that compromises patient safety and quality of care and increases pressure on already overburdened staff,” the clinicians added.

Professional bodies have called on the government and health service to take action from better workforce planning to “much-needed measures to boost the oncology workforce”.

Without action, patients would not receive “optimal and effective levels of care”, the NHS would continue to fall short of its cancer targets and “the government would fail to meet its national cancer ambitions”, they said.

The Department of Health and Social Care said the number of NHS cancer doctors more than halved between January 2010 and January this year.

This includes an increase of more than 3,000 people – 63 per cent of whom are consultants, the most senior being doctors – working in teams to deliver care and reduce NHS waiting lists, one of the government’s top five priorities.

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He added: “We want to build on this progress and will soon publish our workforce plan to ensure we have the right numbers of staff with the right skills to transform and deliver quality services for the future.”