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Specialist nurse shortage threatens progress on cancer outcomes

Shortfall of cancer specialist nurses and other staff who are key to diagnosis and treatment will just get worse without a workforce plan, MPs tell ministers
Nurse talks to patient receiving cancer treatment

Shortfall of cancer specialist nurses and other staff who are key to diagnosis and treatment will just get worse without a government workforce plan, MPs tell ministers

The shortfall in specialist cancer nurses could get close to 3,500 by the end of the decade, MPs have warned.

Members of the Commons health and social care committee today published a 52-page report stating progress made on cancer survival rates could be squandered if the government fails to tackle short staffing as the NHS deals with the COVID-19 backlog.

The cross-party group of MPs said the NHS is short of specialist cancer nurses, as well as ward and theatre nurses vital for the treatment of people with cancer.

    Shortfall of cancer specialist nurses and other staff who are key to diagnosis and treatment will just get worse without a government workforce plan, MPs tell ministers

    Nurse talks to patient receiving cancer treatment
    Picture: iStock

    The shortfall in specialist cancer nurses could get close to 3,500 by the end of the decade, MPs have warned.

    Members of the Commons health and social care committee today published a 52-page report stating progress made on cancer survival rates could be squandered if the government fails to tackle short staffing as the NHS deals with the COVID-19 backlog.

    The cross-party group of MPs said the NHS is short of specialist cancer nurses, as well as ward and theatre nurses vital for the treatment of people with cancer.

    The report warned that 340,000 people in England could miss out on an early diagnosis by 2028 because of staff shortages. It said the NHS is short of 3,371 specialist cancer nurses by 2030 as well as 189 clinical oncologists, 390 consultant pathologists and 1,939 radiologists.

    Nurse specialists are the cornerstone of cancer care

    Cancer nurse specialist and chair of the RCN’s ruling council Carol Popplestone said: ‘The committee hits the nail on the head when it says there is no detailed plan to address the shortage of the specialist nurses needed in health and care.

    ‘A cancer diagnosis is devastating for patients, and cancer nurses are there to provide the support and help they need throughout their treatment. Cancer nurse specialists are the cornerstone of that care, helping patients understand their treatment options and doing clinical tasks and check-ups.’

    The report outlined several key recommendations for the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England and NHS Improvement including developing a specific plan to tackle gaps in the diagnostic workforce.

    ‘Cancer nurse specialists play a key role in treating cancer, and it has already been noted that the NHS will be short of 3,371 of these nurses by 2030, a 100% increase over current numbers of specialist cancer nurses,’ it states.

    ‘There appears to be no detailed plan to address such shortages which threaten diagnosis, treatment and research equally.’

    Government continues to reject calls for detailed workforce plan

    The authors said they have repeatedly recommended an ‘overhaul of workforce planning with independent projections of need, something the government continues to reject’.

    The committee also found that in the year from March 2020, 326,000 fewer people in England received an urgent referral for suspected cancer and 4.6 million fewer key diagnostic tests were carried out.

    A DHC spokesperson declined to confirm whether ministers intend to publish a detailed workforce plan for the cancer workforce and said: ‘With record numbers of nurses and staff overall, we will tackle the COVID backlog and deliver long-term reform, including by reducing waiting times for cancer patients.’


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