Cancer patients are being deprived of vital treatment because millions of pounds promised by the Government for front-line services is being wasted on bureaucracy, leading health charities say.

Cancer patients are being deprived of vital treatment because millions of pounds promised by the Government for front-line services is being wasted on bureaucracy, leading health charities say.

Patients are now being asked to keep detailed records of the system's failings as charities build up a dossier of evidence.

The NHS Cancer Plan set up in 2000 pledged £570m for cancer care by next year. But anecdotal evidence points to a huge gap between that funding commitment and the resources that are actually reaching local services.

It is unclear exactly how much money is being lost to front-line services. But a recent report by cancer charity CancerBacup found that 50 per cent of cancer networks in England did not receive their expected allocation of funds in 2001-02, 43 per cent reported a shortfall in promised funds by 20 per cent to 25 per cent, and more than 80 per cent do not expect to have received their promised allocation of funds in 2003-04.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, has been urged to make good the shortfall in funding; to give any new money directly to the 37 cancer networks in England and Wales; to improve fairness in funding to end the "postcode lottery" in treatment; and to be more open about where the pledged money is going.

Dr Richard Sullivan, head of clinical programmes at Britain's biggest cancer charity Cancer Research UK, and other experts believe the money is being used to pay higher wages, pay off debts or is simply being diverted away from cancer services into other areas. "The feeling is that it is being top sliced on the way down," he said. When it did reach patient services, he said, there were "increasing differences between socio-political priorities and local priorities".

"If they have pinched from Peter to pay Paul it's not good enough because there will be a knock-on effect on funding into the Primary Care Trusts," Dr Sullivan said.

In breast cancer care, for example, charities insist the money is not getting through. Campaigners also claim shortages of trained staff – particularly radiographers – are leading to dangerous delays in treatment. Pamela Goldberg, chief executive of the Breast Cancer Campaign, said some patients were having to wait up to 12 weeks to start radiotherapy after surgery: "Unless they have the human resources, whatever money they put in is not going to make any difference."

Catherine Francis, a bank worker from Haywards Heath, West Sussex, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2001 – three months after being called for a mammogram after her 50th birthday.

She said that the delays started after a second mammogram – the first was inconclusive – showed a lump. She returned to hospital a week later for a biopsy and a week after that for the results. The hospital didn't have any. She had to return a week later for a second biopsy and then return a week after that for the results – which confirmed she had cancer.

"It was a bit of shambles," she said. "This is the most anxious time, when you think you may have cancer, but you don't know for sure."

Two weeks later the lump was removed. But then there were delays in her follow-up treatment. She had read that radiotherapy after the operation is the best way to ensure the cancer doesn't return.

"They were loath to give me an appointment," she Ms Francis. "I insisted and was given one five weeks later and was offered radiotherapy. I then had to wait another 12 weeks before the treatment began. I had read that to be effective radiotherapy has to start within seven weeks. You always think with something like cancer, something that's a killer, you would get the service. You shouldn't have to ask with something that can kill.

"After the treatment a surgeon told me 'we think radiotherapy is the best way forward, but it's not being offered'."

Now the breast cancer charities are calling for more transparency in the Government's auditing process. The Breast Cancer Coalition said: "If the Government cannot show where the money is being spent ... then it should not be so actively promoting its financial pledges."

Dr Liam Fox, the Conservative Health spokesman, said: "Anecdotally, evidence tells us right across the country that money is not getting through to the patients. The Government makes extravagant promises about what they are going to deliver but patients never actually seem to see it."

Comments