Staff Shortages Lead to Cancer Care Delays

Staff Shortages Lead to Cancer Care Delays
BSC, LLB (Hons) & LPC Sophia Azam
Legally reviewed by: BSC, LLB (Hons) & LPC Sophia Azam In: Medical Negligence

NHS Struggling to Provide Safe Cancer Care

Senior doctors have raised concerns about the NHS’s ability to deliver safe and effective care to cancer patients. Concerns are being raised in the midst of severe NHS staff shortages resulting in cancer care delays.

The Royal College of Radiologists has issued a warning that the UK is grappling with severe shortages of staff. This is leading to lengthy delays in crucial tests and treatments. Approximately half of all cancer units are experiencing frequent disruptions in delivering radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Despite promises from ministers, a workforce strategy for the NHS in England, outlining plans to address staffing shortfalls over the next 15 years, has been repeatedly postponed, causing frustration within the healthcare system.

Recent data reveals that by the end of April, 22,533 patients in England had been waiting for over two months for cancer diagnosis or treatment. This is a significant increase from the 19,023 recorded at the end of March. Furthermore, the overall NHS waiting list, encompassing both cancer and non-cancer treatments, has reached a record high of 7.4 million people, the highest figure since records began in 2007.

Quote From AWH’s Head of Medical Negligence, Nimish Patel:

“As a result of the NHS shortages and recent strikes,  appointments for cancer investigation and treatment are constantly being delayed and this causes potential issues as we lose the opportunity for early treatment.   The indication that each month lost by delayed referral may increase the risk of cancer increasing by 10% is shocking especially when coupled with additional shortages in nursing and reporting on the tests.  In Manchester, the world-renowned Christies Hospital was downgraded by the CQC from outstanding. Claimants have informed us that the hospital’s delay in performing risk assessments put patients’ lives at unnecessary risk.”

As a result of the NHS shortages and recent strikes, appointments for cancer investigation and treatment are constantly being delayed. This causes potential issues as we lose the opportunity for early treatment. This is why AWH Solicitors have been supporting movements such as Football Shirt Friday. Additionally, we hope that by writing content, we can improve cancer awareness and campaign for better treatment in the UK.

Cancer Care Delays Resulting in Delays in Diagnosis and Treatment

In June 2022, Carol Fletcher, from South Wales, finally attended her long-overdue routine screening appointment for breast cancer. However, this marked just the start of a series of delays due to a shortage of NHS staff.

“It took another eight weeks after my mammogram before I was told there might be something wrong,” she said.

Following her cancer diagnosis, Carol experienced further delays at various stages, including waiting for scans, tests, surgery, and subsequent chemotherapy.

“I was told that I might not get results back [quickly] after my mastectomy because they haven’t got enough pathologists, so there was another eight-week delay for chemotherapy,” she said.

The impact of these delays has been significant, leaving Carol unable to plan for the future. The delays are affecting both Carol and her family deeply.

Cancer Care Delays Predating Covid

Even prior to the Covid pandemic, the NHS has been struggling to meet cancer targets.

However, the impact of the pandemic has exacerbated the delays in cancer care. This resulted in further backlogs as lockdown measures disrupted essential scans and treatments.

Across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the NHS’s aim is that at least 85% of patients should start treatment within two months of an urgent referral by a GP.

In Wales, the measurement differs slightly as it encompasses both urgent and non-urgent referrals.

As it stands, all of the UK is operating outside of the two-month timeframe. In England, only 61% of patients start treatment within that timeframe, falling short of the 85% target.

The most up-to-date data for how each country is meeting the 85% target is as follows: 

  • England – 61% (data provided April 2023)
  • Northern Ireland – 37% (data provided December 2022)
  • Scotland – 72% (data provided December 2022)
  • Wales – 55% (data provided March 2023)

Ageing Population and Advanced Treatments Furthering Cancer Care Delays

Growing delays can also be attributed to the success of recent cancer treatments and medical advancements.

The advancements in cancer care have been extraordinary, with cutting-edge drugs offering hope in cases where little could be done before.

However, these new techniques are often more intricate for doctors to administer.

Simultaneously, the UK population is ageing, and since cancer risk is closely tied to age, it leads to increased demand for expensive scanners, additional staff to analyze the scans, and more specialized doctors and nurses.

Describing the situation as a perfect storm, the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) highlights the challenges faced by the workforce in keeping up with the demands.

Equally worrisome is an even more significant scarcity of consultant radiologists. These are highly skilled doctors tasked with interpreting scans to diagnose cancer or track its advancement.

Delays Resulting in a Risk to the Lives of Cancer Patients

The RCR states every month of waiting before commencing cancer treatment raises the risk of death by approximately 10%.

In its annual survey, 44% of cancer service managers state they’re “highly concerned” about patient delay. Delays have increased by 29% in the previous year alone.

“There are examples in almost every cancer centre where parts of the service just aren’t running as well as we would like,” said Dr Tom Roques, a consultant oncologist and vice-president of the RCR.

“We’re having to tell patients all the time that we can’t quite treat them as quickly as we would like, or in the way that we’d like, and that’s a stressful thing to have to do.”

Increased Cancer Awareness

During the last decade, there has been a significant increase in individuals coming forward for medical evaluation. This could be after noticing potential symptoms such as unusual lumps, peculiar moles, or unexplained weight loss.

This surge in patient engagement can be attributed to various factors. These factors include:

Cancer doctors perceive this rise in patient awareness as highly beneficial, as a larger proportion of individuals are now diagnosed at earlier stages when cancer is more manageable.

This trend also places additional strain on NHS services. As a result, patients can expect longer waiting times for diagnosis and other essential scans, which has become one of the main bottlenecks in the healthcare system.

NHS’ Effort to Improve Cancer Waiting Times

However, since Christmas, some progress has been observed. The NHS in England is making strides in reducing the backlog of long waiting times for treatment and achieving one of its benchmarks for faster diagnosis for the first time.

The RCR also says there is a “chink of light” – with the recruitment of oncologists rising over the last three years. This is particularly prominent in parts of the country with the worst staff shortages.

It wants each UK nation to increase medical school places and training posts. Additionally,  it says more also needs to be done to stop experienced staff from cutting their hours or leaving the profession early.

The Department of Health said that the total number of full-time staff in the cancer workforce in England had risen by 51% to 33,093 since 2010.