Are NHS Cancer Services on the Brink of Collapse?

Urgent investment is needed in NHS cancer services if they are to be prevented from falling victim to squeezed funding and an increase in demand, according to UK charity Cancer Research.

A new report commissioned by the charity discovered a picture of services being fragmented across different organisations, squeezing of budgets, rising demand and a lack of clear leadership. This report is released at the same time a key cancer waiting target was missed for the first time.

The national target is 85% of patients who are referred to hospital by their GP for cancer treatment starting that treatment within 62 days of being referred. The target was first used in 2009. In some hospitals during the last quarter, only 60% of patients were being seen within the 62 day target.

Experts worry about future UK cancer survival rates

Cancer experts are concerned that the increasing pressure on services will start to have an effect on survival rates. Rather than catching up with the rates of some of the best performing European countries, Britain will start to slip down the rankings.

Cancer Research asked the Health Services Management Centre based at Birmingham University to undertake the research and speak to GPs, NHS managers, patients, hospital doctors and experts in public health.

Survival rates for cancer have doubled in the past 40 years in the UK and this is mostly down to research which has improved the way we diagnose and treat cancer. The total number of cancer cases is also increasing though as the UK population gets older, and these two factors working together that means in the future more people will be diagnosed with cancer, treated and then recover.

Is more cancer testing required?

The charity has called for urgent investment in diagnostic testing to make sure that waiting times do not become even longer in the future. In the past year, more than 1.4 million patients with suspected cancer in England alone were referred to hospital by their GP, an increase of 50% since 2010.

Every month, the NHS carries out an average of 1.3 million diagnostic tests, and this has also doubled since 2006/7. At the same time, real term spending on cancer, which reached a peak of £5.9 billion in 2009-10, has reduced to £5.7 billion.

This means that in some areas chemotherapy services are trying to cope with 40% more patients with the same accommodation and staff. In other areas, cancer patients are being treated on non-specialist wards which is less efficient for staff and raises grave concerns over their quality of care.

The report is clear that demand is beginning to exceed the available resources, and that the missing of the 62 day target for the first time is a clear indicator of the state of NHS cancer services.

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