Cancer Research UK Chief Executive Michelle Mitchell OBE discusses planning with George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation at at Chamber UK Levelling Up the Conversation event in early 2022
As the UK ages and lifespans increase, new cancer diagnoses are set to continue their rise according to a new report by Cancer Research UK. By 2040 new cases could rise to over half a million per year from less than 400,000 today.
This rise will present a serious planning challenge for the NHS which will need the workforce, equipment and facilities ready to meet this demand. Further strains on the health service come from the decreasing mortality rates from many cancers as treatments become more effective. However absolute numbers of cancer deaths are set to rise by almost a quarter between now and 2040 to 208,000.
“A 10-year cancer plan that will prepare cancer services for the future, give people affected by cancer the care they deserve and the resources – people and equipment – the NHS needs, is essential.”Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell OBE
10 year plan
Cancer Research UK has called on the Government to put together a plan to tackle this increase in cancer diagnoses, chief clinician, Charles Swanton, said: “By the end of the next decade, if left unaided, the NHS risks being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new cancer diagnoses. It takes 15 years to train an oncologist, pathologist, radiologist or surgeon. The government must start planning now to give patients the support they will so desperately need.”
Calls for a workforce plan for the NHS have become increasingly urgent in recent months as NHS waiting lists have hit 7 million. Curia’s NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission discussed in June last year how integration could help to alleviate NHS staffing shortages.
Dr Tom Roques, a clinical oncologist and vice-president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said “We are facing extreme pressure in cancer services right now. With cancer cases rising, more complex patients and more innovative treatments coming, I worry about how we will cope in the future. Even now we have a 17% shortfall of clinical oncologists, which is limiting our ability to give high-quality, safe care.”
Early diagnosis is widely seen as one of the most effective ways for the health service to reduce rates of mortality from cancer. Currently the NHS target is that 93% of patients being referred to a specialist cancer consultant seeing that consultant within two weeks is being significantly missed. Only 78.8% of urgent GP referrals to cancer consultants are being seen within this timeframe. 39% of the patients urgently referred by their GPs for suspected cancer waited more than two months to begin treatment, though more people started treatment overall.
“Although cancer is becoming more common as people live longer, there is a lot that we can do to reduce the risk, by adopting healthier lifestyles, reducing alcohol intake and quitting smoking.”NHS national clinical director for cancer, Peter Johnson
Covid-19 was an urgent challenge to the NHS, upending many of the assumptions that services have been built on up to that point. Mistakes were made and many elements of the service were found lacking, one example would be risk inbuilt in the PPE supply chain. These mistakes were somewhat forgivable as in many ways Covid-19 could not have been predicted and even where an infectious respiratory disease pandemic was predicted systems could not be tested to prepare for what was to come.
The rise in cancer cases however is entirely predictable, a long standing trend that will likely continue to the future. It is however not an urgent threat and like other long term problems such as climate change may fall foul of short-termism. What Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party might call “sticking plaster” solutions.
It is essential that Government and the NHS find ways to plan for these long term predictable ones even as political pressure and careers prospects hinge on more urgent matters. If we’re all just reacting to the news, no one is making it.