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Bowel screening and car park cancer scans: what you need to know about the latest NHS announcements

by Corrie Drumm | Analysis

21 November 2017

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NHS hospital bicycle

It’s a simple message: diagnose cancer earlier and treatment is more likely to be successful.

But doing this isn’t so simple.

That’s why a string of announcements from NHS England chief, Simon Stevens, have made headlines today.

Stevens is launching a number of new ways that he says will help the NHS in England diagnose cancers earlier and improve cancer services. And they range from a refreshed commitment to updating bowel screening to an extended pilot project offering CT scans in supermarket car parks to people deemed at high risk of lung cancer.

NHS England showing ambition and commitment to diagnose cancer earlier is great news. And more lives will be saved if it works.

Here’s everything we know about today’s announcements.

Upgrading bowel screening

Stevens’ commitments echo what was laid out in England’s 2015-2020 cancer strategy, now 2 years old. One of these was to introduce a new, more sensitive test into the bowel screening programme called faecal immunochemical testing, or FIT for short.

So we’re pleased that Stevens has prioritised the NHS rolling out the new FIT test, which will be better at detecting blood in poo than the test used for bowel screening today – as invisible blood traces can be a sign of bowel cancer. This test is also easier for people to do at home. So we hope this means more people will take part in screening when the new test is rolled out, because at the moment only 56% of people do. The test will help spot changes that can develop into cancer if left untreated – called bowel polyps – in more people, depending on how sensitive it is.

Today’s announcement didn’t have any more detail on when exactly FIT will be introduced next year, or how the test’s sensitivity will be set to get most benefit.

FIT has the potential to be made even more sensitive in the years to come. But with greater sensitivity comes a growing demand for further tests should screening detect abnormalities in more people. The NHS will need more trained staff to tackle this, so any ambition to make England’s bowel screening programme the best in the world must be matched by a commitment to increase the diagnostic workforce. It’s vital that there are enough staff in the NHS to carry out and interpret tests that can diagnose cancer, including more staff who do colonoscopies, if we’re to make FIT even better in the future.

Because of these workforce needs, we’ve been campaigning for the NHS to train and employ diagnostic staff. A cancer workforce plan is due to be published in December, so we’ll be looking for this problem to be fixed and more funding to achieve earlier diagnosis.

Research in the NHS

Of course, innovation like FIT is only possible with research. So we’re pleased that Stevens also made a strong statement in support of health research in the NHS. “The NHS has an outstanding track record in cancer research, as demonstrated by the number of innovations that have come from this country,” he said.

We hope that these proposals will speed up our ability to set up and run robust clinical trials, ultimately helping more cancer patients live longer and better lives.

The UK is a world-leader in clinical trials and it’s vital that we stay at the forefront. The recent Life Sciences Industrial Strategy set out how the UK can continue to build a thriving research environment. The NHS is a key component of this, so we’re pleased to see these steps taken.

Can we diagnose lung cancer earlier?

Another part of Stevens’ announcement was about scaling up a pilot project initially started in the North West. A few more locations will now start offering CT scans in supermarket car parks to people deemed at higher risk of lung cancer, such as current or ex-smokers. There isn’t a national lung screening programme in the UK, as it’s not recommended by the National Screening Committee. And research is ongoing to test the effects of scanning people who don’t have symptoms – assessing the benefits, risks and harms.

It’s important that new approaches in the NHS, such as increased use of lung checks, are guided by robust evidence and properly evaluated.

If you’re a smoker, the best advice we have for reducing your risk is to quit smoking. Stop Smoking Services provide smokers with support to quit and you can find your local service on the NHS website.

Making all patients’ experiences heard

Stevens also used his speech today to call for people from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds who are living with cancer to share their experiences of NHS cancer services, by responding to the Cancer Patient Experience Survey through its website. Again this echoes England’s cancer strategy, and we hope that in raising awareness of this challenge Stevens and those in the NHS can do more to reach everyone affected by cancer.

Seeing the NHS take steps that could diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage is something we can all get on board with. But making sure research and the best quality evidence underpins this is crucial, so that people across the UK can benefit.

Corrie Drumm is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK