Health: Cancer patients suffer shortage of specialists

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The Independent Online
Jeremy Laurance

Cancer is becoming more common, but specialist staff trained to treat it are not. Urgent action is needed to fill gaps in services and ensure that the care of cancer patients is not left to chance depending on where they live, a report warns today

Studies show that less than half of cancer patients are referred to a cancer specialist and over a quarter are treated by consultants who have little experience in dealing with their condition. The shortage of skilled staff is likely to worsen because the number of people with cancer is forecast to rise by four per cent over the next decade.

The Cancer Collaboration study, produced jointly by the King's Fund, the Cancer Research Campaign and Macmillan Cancer Relief, says there is a shortage of more than 120 radiotherapists and more than 70 medical oncologists, as well as clinical nurse specialists.

Under the 1995 Calman proposals, a network of cancer units linked to specialist cancer centres was proposed to ensure that all patients had access to high-quality treatment. To achieve the aim of creating 150 units and 40 centres, there will be further demands on staff.

An extra 500 medical students should be trained each year, 450 new consultant posts created and more nurses, surgeons, radiotherapists and GPs specialising in cancer should be appointed, it says.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "It is very worrying that if someone in Britain develops a type of cancer such as bowel or lung, their chance of surviving the disease is worse than if they lived in the United States, Germany or France."

Christine Farrell, director of the King's Fund clinical change programme, said: "It seems inevitable that the required numbers of trained, experienced nurses and doctors will not be available in the short term unless the Department of Health can find some short-term and long-term solutions to the cancer workforce problems."

Professor George Alberti, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said it was not only cancer patients who were suffering from a shortage of specialists.

"We have a whole mountain range of medical conditions to treat, and only enough consultants to reach the foothills."