Cancer patients face worsening NHS delays and compromised care due to a lack of staff, radiology leaders have warned.
A poll of all 60 directors of the UK’s cancer centres by the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) found 95% felt staff shortages were leading to longer waiting times for appointments and delays in cancer treatment.
In 97% of centres, patient treatment had been delayed because of staff shortages over the past year, while in around half shortages were causing delays almost every month.
Some 88% of cancer specialists were concerned shortages are compromising patient care.
The RCR said the situation was a “ticking time bomb” as delays can be potentially harmful for patients, with every month of delay increasing the risk of death by 10%.
Doctors are making difficult decisions about how to prioritise patients.
This “serious situation” has resulted in some hospitals considering limiting access to new chemotherapy treatments, and moving patients around hospitals.
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‘Years of underfunding’
Dr Tom Roques, vice chair of clinical oncology at the RCR, said recruitment and retention are key to solving the crisis.
“Our major concern at the moment is that patients are not being diagnosed with cancer and other serious conditions quickly enough and they’re not getting their treatment quickly enough,” he told Sky News.
“This is a problem of years of underfunding of the cancer workforce.
“So, because we’ve not been increasing medical school places and training places quickly enough, we’ve ended up with this problem of not enough doctors.”
Dr Roques added: “We know that too many young doctors are leaving the UK to work overseas.
“We know too many experienced doctors are retiring early, and we’ve got to think of ways of changing that, and that’s really about conditions of work as well as pay.”
Early diagnosis can be a game-changer
For Bryony – an earlier diagnosis could have been a game-changer.
She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019 and had symptoms “so gradual” they began to “feel normal”.
However, Bryony said catching the cancer quicker may have prevented it from spreading to her lymph nodes.
“I think I saw eight different GPS. I didn’t see one person consistently,” she told Sky News.
“I was tested for celiac, anaemia, thyroid, I do wonder whether if I had seen one doctor consistently over those five years, maybe the dots would have been joined.”
Bryony’s journey to remission has been tough. It has meant nine months of back-to-back treatment – both physically and mentally gruelling.
She said: “7% make it to five years. I had a 1% chance of seeing my daughter reach her 18th birthday. And I was very likely to die within 12 weeks.”
Bryony said, given the circumstances, she was “grateful” to be alive.
Tens of thousands of patients will receive faster treatment, NHS says
A government spokesperson said: “There are more doctors, nurses and staff working in the NHS than ever before.
“The NHS is also seeing, treating and saving record numbers of people with cancer but we know there is more to do.”
The NHS said from July onwards, tens of thousands of patients will receive a diagnosis and treatment for skin cancer faster, through a new process which involves taking high-spec images of spots, moles or lesions on people’s skin.
The hope is this “simple” technology will give specialist dermatologists the opportunity to double the number of patients they can meet in a day.