Over 100,000 cancer patients getting diagnosed too late each year due to severe staff shortage
If bowel cancer is diagnosed at the most initial stage over nine in 10 people will survive, but if it is diagnosed at the latest stage, just one in 10 people will survive their disease for at least five years
The inability to diagnose cancer at an early stage - where treatment is likely to be more successful - due to severe staff shortage, is leaving thousands of patients with little chance of survival. In one year alone, around 115,000 cancer patients in England are diagnosed too late, which implies that nearly half of all cancers are diagnosed at stage 3 or 4.
Of these, around 67,000 people are diagnosed at stage 4 - the most advanced stage - leaving people with fewer treatment options and less chance of surviving their disease, according to the latest analysis by Cancer Research UK, based on data from the Public Health England.
“It is unacceptable that so many people are diagnosed late. Although survival has improved, it’s not happening fast enough. More referrals to the hospital mean we urgently need more staff. The government’s inaction on staff shortages is crippling the National Health Service (NHS), failing cancer patients and the doctors and nurses who are working tirelessly to diagnose and treat them,” says Emma Greenwood, director of policy at Cancer Research UK.
An early diagnosis can make a massive difference: For example, if bowel cancer is diagnosed at the most initial stage over nine in 10 people will survive, but if it is diagnosed at the latest stage, just one in 10 people will survive their disease for at least five years.
Experts say while several factors can influence how early or late someone is diagnosed, workforce shortages are a significant contributor. To be able to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage, many more patients will need to be tested for suspected cancer. Currently, there is a considerable shortage of NHS medical staff trained to carry out tests that diagnose cancer, meaning that efforts by the health system to diagnose and treat cancer more swiftly are being thwarted.
According to Cancer Research UK, by 2027, around 389,000 people in England are expected to be diagnosed with cancer every year. By 2035, this will rise to nearly 438,000 people - an increase of more than 130,000 on 2015 levels, show estimates. Experts say keeping up with such a massive and growing demand will be dependent on a dedicated staff involved in cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Staff numbers, according to the researchers, might need to double across workgroups by 2027 to meet the needs of the growing number of patients. For example, Cancer Research UK estimates suggest that by 2027, the number of radiologists may need to grow by 70%, the number of gastroenterologists by 45%, the number of therapeutic radiographers by 80%, and the number of oncologists may have to triple.
“By 2035, one person every minute will be diagnosed with cancer, but there’s no plan to increase the number of NHS staff to cope with demand now or the growing numbers in the future. Saving lives from cancer needs to be top of the agenda for the new government, and it must commit to investing in vital NHS staff now to ensure no one dies from cancer unnecessarily,” the findings state.
Last year, the government made a pledge to improve the number of people diagnosed with early-stage cancer, from two in four diagnosed early to three in four by 2028, which could save thousands of lives. However, according to Cancer Research UK, an extra 100,000 patients must be diagnosed each year by 2028 to reach this target.
The researchers say that to diagnose more patients at an early stage would imply more people being referred to urgently for tests, but increasing referrals have left diagnostic staff under enormous pressure because of vacant posts, a lack of funding to train new doctors and growing lists of patients. Estimates show that at least one in 10 of these posts is empty.
“We can feel the bottleneck tightening in the NHS - the pressure is mounting on diagnostic staff. We do not have nearly enough radiologists in the UK right now, and far too many patients are waiting too long for scans and results. NHS staff are working as hard as they can, but we will not be able to care for the rising number of cancer patients unless the resources are found to train more specialist staff,” says Dr. Giles Maskell, radiology expert at Cancer Research UK.