Cancer survival rates could worsen unless the government comes up with a specific plan to fix staff shortages in the cancer workforce, MPs have warned.
In a highly critical report on cancer services in England, MPs on the health and social care select committee have raised the alarm on the “damaging and continuing impact of the pandemic” warning that improvements in cancer survival will go into reverse.
Evidence provided to the committee by the government and NHS showed that the health service was not on track to meet targets on early cancer diagnosis, say the MPs. Without progress, it would mean more than 340,000 people missing out on an early cancer diagnosis between 2019 and 2028.
Committee chair Jeremy Hunt said: “Earlier cancer diagnosis is the key to improving overall survival rates however progress is being jeopardised by staff shortages which threaten both diagnosis and treatment.
NHS staff shortages
“We do not believe that the NHS is on track to meet the government’s target on early cancer diagnosis by 2028, reinforced by our expert panel’s rating that progress against this target is inadequate.
“We are further concerned at the damaging and prolonged impact of the pandemic on cancer services with a real risk that gains made in cancer survival will go into reverse.”
Cancer workforce staff shortages in the NHS currently include the need for 189 more clinical oncologists, 390 consultant pathologists and 1,939 radiologists. It is also estimated the NHS will be short of 3,371 specialist cancer nurses by 2030.
“There appears to be no detailed plan to address such shortages which threaten diagnosis, treatment and research equally,” write the report’s authors. “We have recommended many times the need for an overhaul of workforce planning with independent projections of need, something the government continues to reject. We repeat this recommendation for the cancer workforce where more short-term increases are urgently needed to address the Covid backlog and meet the 2028 early diagnosis ambition.”
Despite some progress in cancer survival rates, outcomes in England lag behind other countries such as Australia. In England, 58.9% of people diagnosed with colon cancer will live for five years or more, compared to 70.8% in Australia.
Hunt described the case of one mother who told the committee about her 27-year-old daughter’s five-month struggle to get a cancer diagnosis but tragically died three weeks after it eventually came.
“Unfortunately, many more lives will almost certainly end prematurely without earlier diagnosis and prompt treatment,” said Hunt. “That is why we are calling on the government and the NHS to act now to address gaps in the cancer workforce upon which success depends. To date we have found little evidence of a serious effort to do so.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said it will invest £8bn over the next three years to cut the backlog and deliver an extra 9 million checks, scans and operations by 2025, as well as 160 community diagnostic centres.
NHS England said: “We have been seeing referrals for cancer checks at record highs for the last 11 months – with more than 567,000 people starting cancer treatment since the start of the pandemic – and by investing £3.8bn in increased treatment and diagnostic capacity through the elective recovery plan, we aim to ensure that we are catching and treating more cancers at an early stage and saving even more lives.”