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Cancer: Staffing

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 14 March 2024

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, in the light of warnings by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, what assessment they have made of the risk to cancer patients in England presented by the staffing levels, workloads and working conditions of healthcare professionals.

I express my regret about the cases referenced by the ombudsman. The department is taking steps to reduce cancer diagnosis and treatment waiting times across England and to improve survival rates across all cancer types. Through announcing the first ever NHS long-term workforce plan, we are taking meaningful steps to build the NHS workforce for the future. The Government are backing the plan, with over £2.4 billion of funding for additional education and training places.

My Lords, the Minister will know that numerous complaints relating to patients with cancer that were investigated by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman included misdiagnosis, treatment delays, the mismanagement of conditions, poor communication and unsuitable end-of-life care. As the NHS is grappling with over 110,000 staff shortages, how is patient safety being compromised by the Government’s long delay in bringing forward the workforce plan? What immediate action will the Government take to deal with the continuing risk to cancer patients posed by a workforce that the ombudsman describes as “understaffed, under pressure and exhausted”?

As the noble Baroness says, we see increasing the workforce as a core component here. I was speaking to the president of the Royal College of Radiologists about this the other day, and we obviously need to make sure that the workforce can be as effective as possible at what it does. We are doing a lot of new diagnosis, and 80% of all the medical AI technologies are in the radiography space, which is making a huge difference to diagnosis and productivity. It is clearly fundamental that we get the treatment to these people as quickly as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there has been underfunding of the NHS for more than a decade now and that our cancer recovery rates do not compare with those of our competitors in Europe? Will he agree to have an urgent uplift in the funding of cancer services in particular over the next period, in order to try to lift our recovery rates up to those of Europe?

Noble Lords have heard me say many times that we are investing roughly 10% of the economy into the health space, which is much more than ever before and comparable to nations around the world—apart from America, which stands significantly above. I am sure noble Lords saw the headline in the Times today that survival rates are at their best level ever, and there has been a 35% reduction in mortality rates for men and women over the last 10 or 15 years. So there is a lot of progress in this space, but I accept that we need to invest more—that is what the new CDCs, and the 7 million extra tests they are performing, are all about.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interest with the Dispensing Doctors’ Association. Does my noble friend share my concern about the number of GPs, particularly those under 55, who are considering retirement in the next five years? How do the Government plan to fill the vacancies that will be created, to ensure that, particularly in rural areas, a fast track will exist for patients who are suffering from cancer for the earliest possible referral to hospital? I refer to the letter I wrote to our noble friend Lord Evans on this.

I thank my noble friend and totally agree that GPs are the front line of our medical services. We are trying to do everything we can to make sure that they feel valued and are retained. The recent change to the pension law was all about addressing that very point, answering GPs’ number 1 concern in order to keep them. Their hard work has seen a 25% increase in the cancer referral rate: we treated 3 million people, up 600,000, over the last year, thanks to their work and the expansion in the diagnostic centres we have set up.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with us on these Benches that there should be a statutory two-month period between diagnosis and access to appropriate treatment for any cancer patient? In order to achieve that, there needs to be further investment in radiography training and an equitable distribution of trainee radiographers and qualified radiographers across the country. How will the Government ensure that that happens?

As I mentioned, that was very much the big feature of the discussion that I had with the president of the Royal College of Radiologists just the other day. We have been growing the number of radiographers by about 3% every year, which is a good rate, and we look to increase that even further. The CDCs are about that. However, the actual demand is increasing by about 5% every year. Clearly, as well as recruitment, we need to make sure that we have effective diagnosis, and this is where the field of AI is very exciting. The radiographers are 100% behind it, because they really see the revolutionary effect it is bringing.

My Lords, we are certainly shortly of staff, and the problem is not increasing recruitment but enhancing retention. Staff are leaving because they are disillusioned and disaffected, and we do not treat them well enough. Any large business knows that, if you have a happy workforce, it will be productive. We certainly do not have that in the NHS. We certainly need to stop this dismissive attitude and enhance the conditions of their service, and it is not simply about pay. Does he agree?

I totally agree that it is a range of things. I completely agree with the noble Lord that a good employer should be looking to make sure that employees have good working conditions and feel valued, and that there is an understanding culture in the workplace as well as decent pay. I say all this in the context that the workforce in the cancer space has actually increased by 56% since 2010, so it is not as if there have not been massive increases here. The actual number of treatments and diagnoses has gone up by more than 20% from pre-pandemic levels. So we are doing a lot in this space, but I agree with the noble Lord’s basic premise that we need to ensure that staff feel valued so they will want to carry on working.

My Lords, I declare my interest as being employed in part by the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff. Do the Government recognise that continuity of care is absolutely essential for patients to be able to spot when things are changing and to allow sensitive conversations to occur? Will he therefore undertake to have urgent discussions with the Royal Colleges and with Health Education England to look at the training rotas for doctors who are working in oncology, allowing them to provide better continuity of care with less disruption to their own lifestyles, and better support? Will he also look at recommending that they might draw on the Welsh experience of Talk CPR, which allows early conversations about very difficult topics, providing video books and so on that patients can take home and then come back to see the same person again some time afterwards, providing continuity of care and better communication?

First off, I completely agree about continuity of care—in any treatment, to be honest. I was just saying, in answer to a maternity question the other day, that continuity of care in the midwifery space is another vital example. On the question of learning lessons from what the noble Baroness mentioned, we have some meetings set up, so I look forward to discussing it further then.

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my registered interests. The Minister rightly identified an improvement in survival rates for those between their late 30s and 69 over the last 30 years. He also accepted the fact that those delivering cancer services are under a huge amount of pressure to ensure timely provision of that care. It is also essential to achieving long-term improvement in outcomes that we continue to innovate and that clinicians are provided the opportunity to participate in clinical research, which validates innovation and allows its adoption at scale and pace. Is the Minister content that we are doing enough to protect time for clinical research and participation by all healthcare professionals in those protocols to drive those advances in innovation?

First, I completely agree on the need for and the vital importance of clinical research in all this. Providing clinicians with time does two things: it means that they get their incredibly valuable time, resources and brains on it; it also addresses the question asked earlier about retention. Of course, this is why a lot of clinicians want to be in this space, so they have time to do research as well. There are very good personal and medical reasons why they should be allowed to do that.

My Lords, I should declare an interest in that my wife is receiving treatment from the Royal Marsden. Is it possible that the national statistics mask a great variation between hospitals such as the Marsden, which is absolutely top of the range, and some others? Is it worth looking at the differences and what we can learn from them?

Yes. Funnily enough, I was having a similar conversation just yesterday about how we can use data to really understand some of the differences in performance because, as the noble Lord said, we have all heard of some brilliant examples in our NHS hospitals and we have all heard of some other examples which, as pointed out by the ombudsman, were unfortunately not so good. Understanding those centres of excellence and those that need more help is vital.