At a conference in London this week, Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt announced plans to increase the number of specialists employed by the NHS to improve cancer diagnosis and care. But despite this welcome news, some important staffing shortfalls still need to be addressed.
Speaking at the Britain Against Cancer Conference today, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that 300 radiographers will be trained to report on some types of scans, and promised more support for clinical nurse specialists. These announcements are in the Health Education England Workforce report, released today.
The report, which also suggests ways to boost numbers of radiologists in the next few years, comes the day after the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer released an inquiry into the progress of the England Cancer Strategy, one year on. This contained some important recommendations on how to achieve the ambitions of the cancer strategy in England and had a welcome focus on addressing challenges in the cancer workforce.
Ultimately it is good news that there is a planned increase in radiologist numbers. These clinicians, who specialise in diagnosing medical conditions using various imaging techniques, are crucial to the roll out of mpMRI scanning before biopsy as part of prostate cancer diagnosis. However, the suggested increase will not fully plug the gap in numbers outlined in the Radiology workforce census which came out this year.
In the short-term, it should help that some diagnostic radiographers (those who take scans) will be upskilled to be able to report on some scan types too. This should help to free up radiologists' time to work on the more complex scans, such as mpMRI. But this can only form part of the solution.
The report also promises more support for clinical nurse specialists, to give them the skills to provide the best care to people with cancer. But although this is important, it does not address the fact that there is an increasing need for more nurses. At the moment there are not enough and access across the UK varies dramatically.
We believe that every man with prostate cancer should have access to the expertise of nurse specialists, who understand their specific needs, throughout their treatment and care journey. However, the numbers of specialist nurse posts are not proportional to the amount of men who have the disease. We want this issue addressed urgently.
Heather Blake, our Director of Support and Influencing, said: “The Health Education England (HEE) Workforce Strategy is a late, but critical document that is vital to achieving the aims for improved diagnosis and patient outcomes set out in the NHS England Cancer Strategy.
“If early and accurate cancer diagnosis is to become a reality for more people, we will need innovative solutions to address the radiologist shortfalls that will remain, despite the planned boost in numbers. Radiologists are crucial to ensuring all eligible men can have access to a multi-parametric MRI (mpMRI) scan before a biopsy which can radically improve prostate cancer diagnosis. The short-term plan to try to offset the radiologist shortfall by upskilling more radiographers to report some scan types is a welcome step in the right direction.
“HEE must also tackle the declining numbers of clinical nurse specialists, who play a critical role in patient outcomes and experience throughout their cancer journey – an issue which the workforce strategy fails to cover in adequate detail. HEE must work alongside other NHS bodies and government to prioritise these current workforce issues if we are to truly have a cancer workforce fit for patients now and in the future.”
Heather was one of several Prostate Cancer UK staff at the Britain Against Cancer Conference, meeting with politicians and decision makers to discuss issues facing the disease. She also led a breakout session focussing on the importance of delivering routine pre-biopsy mpMRI as part of the diagnostic process for prostate cancer.