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NHS staff shortages: urgent action needed to safeguard cancer services and help more people survive

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by Cancer Research UK | News

18 November 2019

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Tom Martin picture for press release
Tom Martin

Progress in improving cancer survival is at risk of being limited by staff shortages, an inquiry into the future of cancer care in Scotland has concluded.

“The Scottish Government must not shy away from making long term plans that will ensure cancer services are able to cope now and in the future. People like me will depend upon it.” – Tom Martin.

The Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Cancer reports that government’s plans to tackle this critical issue have failed to take a long-term approach and have been insufficiently funded, hindering efforts to ensure more patients survive the disease.

In June 2019, more than 18% patients were waiting for longer than the Scottish Government target of six weeks for a key diagnostic test – more than double the proportion compared to just three years ago.*

This is an issue that is set to become more acute due to a growing and aging population.**

The findings will be presented today (Monday) at the Scottish Cancer Conference in Glasgow by Cross Party Group (CPG) co-convener Anas Sarwar MSP.

Mr Sarwar said: “This report must serve as an urgent wake-up call for the Scottish Government.

“Cancer survival is being put at risk because of a chronic staffing shortage in our NHS. This has devastating consequences for patients with cancer and their families and friends.

“With a growing and ageing population, the time for action is now. We need a long-term workforce plan backed up by sufficient investment and resources to save lives in Scotland.”

Every year around 32,200 people in Scotland are diagnosed with the disease. By 2035, it has been estimated that this will rise by around a quarter with more than 40,000 people in Scotland expected to be diagnosed with cancer annually.***

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell is also addressing the Scottish Cancer Conference in Glasgow. She said: “The findings of this inquiry are deeply concerning. Diagnosing cancer early can make all the difference, but there are major shortages in the staff trained to carry out the tests that diagnose cancer.

“Cancer services in Scotland are already struggling. Without urgent action, this will only worsen as demand increases.

“The Scottish Government must act now and publish a long-term cancer workforce plan – to enable the NHS to do its best by patients today and prepare for rising demand in the future.”

Just last month a report by ISD Scotland showed that cancer continues to kill more people in Scotland than any other disease. More than 16,000 people in Scotland died from cancer in 2018.****

CPG co-convenor Miles Briggs said urgent action was needed to improve cancer services if more people in Scotland were to survive following a diagnosis.

He said: “The in-depth inquiry conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Cancer has highlighted in stark terms the major challenges facing cancer services and the failure of Scottish Government Minsters to provide for the increasing and changing workforce needs especially in the delivery diagnostic services. 

“The key message from the inquiry is there simply isn’t enough NHS staff to do the job and, after more than 12 years in control of health, Scottish Ministers have not met this priority and outcome in the Cancer Strategy.

“Scottish Ministers have been warned repeatedly about the impact of this not just on cancer patients, but also on over-stretched NHS staff too.

“A damning report like this must spur Scottish Ministers into action. We now need to see urgent action to improve cancer services across Scotland.”

Tom Martin is a former cancer patient with a heartfelt reason to support the call for a long-term plan for more NHS staff.

While he is thankfully now cancer free, Tom had a long 90-day wait to start his cancer treatment, something he worries may have given the prostate cancer he was suffering from time to spread.

Tom, father-of-three and a devoted grandfather of eight from Edinburgh, is now a Cancer Research UK Campaigns Ambassador – a volunteer who campaigns on behalf of the charity for change.

The 81-year-old, who was diagnosed in June 2016, said: “NHS workers do an amazing job and I’m so grateful for the treatment and care I received. But cancer services are stretched to the limit, something which is only going to get worse as more people are diagnosed with cancer.

“Waiting for my cancer diagnosis and treatment was such an anxious time, for me and my family. You don’t know where you stand and there are times you fear for the worst.

“I know that if cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, the more successful the treatment is likely to be. I do wonder if I had been seen earlier, would the prostate cancer have been caught sooner, before it had spread. Who knows?

“The Scottish Government must not shy away from making long term plans that will ensure cancer services are able to cope now and in the future. People like me will depend upon it.”