England’s cancer therapy backlog ‘could take more than a decade to shift’

A new report has suggested it could take until 2033 to clear the backlog of cancer treatment in England caused by the pandemic.

The analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and Carnall Farrar (CF) consultancy suggests that timeline will be the result if hospitals can operate at a level 5% above what they were achieving before COVID-19.

Raise that to 15% however, and the backlog could be wiped out next year, according to the study, which estimates that 15% fewer people than expected – 369,000 individuals – had been referred to a cancer specialist since the start of the pandemic.

It also calculates that 19,500 people who should have been diagnosed with cancer had not been as a result of missed referrals, and for some of them it will now be too late to hope for a cure. There were also 7% fewer chemotherapy courses delivered, and 13% fewer radiotherapy procedures.

The IPPR and CF argue that the rise in cancer care activity that is needed can only be achieved with a new policy to increase the cancer workforce and investment in diagnostic equipment – beyond the £5.4 billion in new funding for NHS England announced earlier this month by the government.

Returning merely to pre-pandemic levels should not be the objective, they maintain, as the UK had poor cancer outcomes compared to similar countries, including relatively low numbers of CT and MRI scanners per head and workforce shortages across all cancer-related services.

“The pandemic has severely disrupted cancer services in England, undoing years of progress in improving cancer survival rates.” Said IPPR research fellow Dr Parth Patel.

“Clearing the cancer care backlog before the next general election looks unlikely with the way the NHS is currently resourced, staffed and organised,” he added.

The authors are calling for measures to increase staffing levels – including a revision of pension tax rules to swell the number of oncology consultants – as well as investment in more diagnostic machines and  mobile/community diagnostic units.

Expanding MRI scan capacity by 10% could clear the full MRI backlog in the NHS by 2024 instead of 2040, according to the report.

“The impact of the pandemic on cancer services cannot be disassociated from the political and policy decisions that came before it,” said Chris Thomas, senior research fellow at IPPR. “Years of austerity ripped the resilience out of cancer care.”

In the last 6 years, almost 55,000 cancer patients should have been diagnosed quicker or started their treatment sooner, according to calculations from Cancer Research UK.

This is because, in England, the NHS has continued to miss its target to treat 85% of cancer patients within two months of their urgent suspected cancer referral. A target that exists to ensure that patients are seen, diagnosed and treated quickly. According to the charity.

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