Sir Harpal Kumar

Sir Harpal Kumar

A leaked memo to staff at Churchill Hospital in Oxford hit headlines yesterday.

Worryingly, it suggested that chemotherapy treatment could be delayed for cancer patients, and some who are terminally ill may face cuts to their rounds of chemo, due to staff shortages.

The Government was told about severe staff shortages in NHS cancer care and that this was an urgent problem back in 2015. The NHS Cancer Strategy for England that I authored highlighted pressures facing those staff who treat cancer, which prevent some patients being seen quickly and receiving the best possible care and support.

But for too long there has been no progress.

The problem is not new. Workforce planning in the NHS has been shockingly poor for decades, through successive Governments. For three years Cancer Research UK has been urging the Government to tackle cancer staff shortages in the NHS. It’s totally unacceptable that these shortages could now lead to delays in patients getting treatment.

This latest episode at the Churchill Hospital, where chemotherapy may be delayed due to lack of specialist nursing staff, adds to a growing list. Reports of lung cancers being left undiagnosed because of a lack of radiologists emerged late last year, and the Care Quality Commission is now investigating this. We need immediate action from the Government to deal with these problems, otherwise desperate measures, like the one suggested at Oxford, will become more widespread and more severe.

Looking to the future, 150,000 extra people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer annually by 2035. We need more staff in the NHS, with the right training and support, to deal with the increasing number of cancer patients who will be diagnosed and need treatment. For example, our recent report suggests that by 2022 the NHS may only have half the number of specialist cancer doctors needed to deliver the best care, with a potential shortage of between 1,281 – 2,067 staff estimated. In this report, nearly 3 in 4 members of the cancer workforce said that staff shortages were already having a direct impact on their ability to deliver the best treatment for patients.

Health Education England recently published its first ever plan to deal with the staff shortages in cancer care. But it relies heavily on stretched local areas acting and making difficult spending decisions, and will not change the situation overnight.

We have a national ambition to achieve world class cancer outcomes for all patients, of which we are rightly proud. We will not get close to achieving this – and to offering patients the best chance of long term survival – without tackling crippling workforce shortages. This issue will not go away without action and we call on the Government to address these concerns urgently.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK

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