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To ‘Commit to Beat Cancer’, the Government must provide access to world class treatments

by Hilary Tovey | Analysis

13 April 2010

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Cancer Research UK’s ‘Commit to Beat Cancer’ campaign calls on parliamentary candidates to pledge to keep cancer high on the political agenda.

Previously, we took a look at how the Government can protect the UK’s science base.

In this next instalment, Hilary Tovey, Cancer Research UK’s policy manager, explains why all parties should be investing in world class cancer treatments for patients in the NHS.

The UK is a world leader in cancer research. There are currently hundreds of new cancer drugs in development; 44 radiotherapy trials are currently listed on our CancerHelp UK trials database; and recent advances in specialised surgery have improved survival and reduced hospital stays for patients.

But despite these successes, there’s still a long way to go.

We need to make sure that cancer patients across the UK are getting access to the best possible treatment for their disease. This means ensuring that innovative new treatments are rolled out to patients as soon as possible.

We believe there are four areas the next Government needs to focus on to achieve this.

Addressing variations in cancer treatments

We’ve all heard of examples where cancer drugs are available to patients in certain areas of the country and not others.

And along with this, there have been reports of four-fold differences in surgery rates and a two and a half fold variation in radiotherapy provision in England. We need to know why these differences occur and take action to address them.

We also know that fewer than 10 per cent of lung cancer patients in the UK receive surgery that could cure them, compared to around 20 per cent elsewhere in Europe. And around 50 per cent of people with cancer could benefit from radiotherapy as part of their treatment but, across the UK, less than 40 per cent of them actually receive it.

The UK spends less on cancer drugs than comparable European countries – we want the Government to review whether this is appropriate.

Some of this is down to the fact that sometimes patients’ cancers are diagnosed too late for these treatments to be effective – a particular problem in the UK compared to the best performing countries in Europe. But we also know that variations in access to treatment exist across the UK which can’t be explained by diagnosis alone.

Investing in the most advanced treatments

The UK has traditionally been slow to introduce new treatments on the NHS.

We know that the most effective treatments can mean fewer side effects and long term complications for patients. And as well as benefiting patients, this saves the NHS money in the longer term. A new kind of radiotherapy – intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) – that Cancer Research UK has helped pioneer – can do just that.

Research shows that when treating prostate cancer patients with IMRT, doctors can avoid irradiating areas around their prostate. This means that they can be spared side effects like incontinence. This more precise technique is widely used in Europe and the US, but isn’t yet fully rolled out across the UK.

Reducing people’s stays in hospital can also save the NHS money. This is why we’re disappointed at the slow roll-out of keyhole surgery for bowel cancer. Since it’s less invasive than traditional surgery, keyhole surgery can reduce bed stays for patients – time which patients would much rather spend at home than in hospital.

New cancer drugs, although often expensive, can also bring savings, particularly where these are targeted to a specific group of patients. However, new drugs are prescribed less often here than in comparable European countries. According to the government’s own Cancer Reform Strategy , prescribing rates by doctors in the UK for new cancer drugs, particularly within the first five years after licensing, are currently around 60 per cent of those in Europe.

The next Government must ensure that the way drugs are approved for use on the NHS, through the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), works effectively for all cancer types and in all situations. We need smarter decisions, made faster, with better input from expert doctors, and by a process reflecting the complexity of cancer and increasingly specialised treatments.

Striving for the best from the NHS

The Government needs to send a clear message to the NHS that it wants a health service which is committed to rolling out new treatments to improve the lives of cancer patients – particularly in surgery and radiotherapy.

The delivery of radiotherapy is complex and needs careful planning. Alongside long-term plans to improve radiotherapy, we want the Government to raise its profile. Having patients and a public who can understand, and advocate for, radiotherapy as an important part of cancer treatment will help support this work.

As well as providing guidance on drugs to be made available on the NHS, NICE also publishes guidance on other aspects of patient care. However, whether this guidance is taken on board by individual hospitals varies considerably across the country. We want to see more incentives for local providers to make sure they take NICE’s advice – particularly where it has been shown to save lives.

Measuring and celebrating our successes

And finally, progress cannot be measured without knowing how well the NHS is serving cancer patients, both in terms of improvements in survival rates and in ensuring that they receive fair and equal treatment.

We want the collection and analysis of cancer information and data to be a core part of all future plans for cancer to enable world class research, commissioning, and services.

Email your candidates today

All these areas require Government commitments to allow patients in the UK the best opportunity to beat cancer and to make our cancer outcomes among the best in Europe.

That’s why we’re asking all our supporters, and everyone who cares about making a difference for cancer patients now and in the future, to help us get prospective parliamentary candidates to Commit to Beat Cancer and ensure that the UK is providing our patients with access to world class treatments for cancer.


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