Cancer nursing lacks the resources to address care backlog

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, we must strive to meet the priorities of people who require cancer care and the priority has to be healthcare recruitment

Nurse consultant Mark Foulkes
Nurse consultant Mark Foulkes Picture: Charles Milligan

Last month, I was asked by Macmillan Cancer Support to present evidence to the Commons health and social care committee’s inquiry into cancer services.

The inquiry is set to establish why cancer outcomes in England continue to lag behind those of comparable countries and the impact of disruption to cancer services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We now run cancer services alongside the pandemic. Most regions are running at 120% of pre-COVID-19 levels of referral and I have little confidence that cancer nursing has the resources needed to address the backlog in cancer care.

Macmillan’s 2017 census of the cancer workforce in England revealed that 37% of the specialist cancer nursing workforce is over the age of 50 and may retire in the next ten years. In some areas the proportion is even higher. These are skilled and experienced nurses, and even if we started training to replace them now, there would still be a gap in the workforce.

Look beyond the pandemic and address pressing workforce issues

To fill these posts we must attract people in to nursing generally and cancer nursing specifically. This requires urgent action and investment.

There has recently been a focus on new hospitals, diagnostic kit, technology and new drugs. None of these offer solutions without people to work in hospitals, use the kit, deliver the technology, administer the drugs and support patients with the side-effects of treatment.

The message I relayed to the minister was to look beyond the pandemic, into the future and into the past. There are many pressing workforce issues that could, and should, have been addressed four or five years ago. The shortage in oncology nursing was predicted, yet nothing was done to address it.

In the future, if COVID-19 looks like an endemic and manageable infection, the challenge will be providing a vision for oncology care, and nurses will be a vital element of this.

We know what patients’ priorities are: personalised, timely and compassionate care delivered in a range of settings by skilled and highly-trained staff. Now, in the wake of one of the biggest health crises in human history, we have an opportunity to ensure these priorities are met .

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