Cancer strategy ‘must be updated’

The government’s ten-year cancer strategy must be revised to take account of health service reforms, new technology and an ageing population, a think tank has warned.

Research by the King’s Fund finds that although the cancer plan launched in 2000 has led to significant improvements in cancer care on the NHS, it must be updated.

Cancer charities have welcomed the recommendations, but health minister Caroline Flint noted that there were still six years to go on the current strategy, and it had already been updated three times, the last time in 2004.

“We will keep the decision on whether to publish a second cancer plan under review,” she said.

The NHS cancer plan was introduced by the Labour government with the aim of improving survival rates, patient access to treatment and waiting times for diagnosis and care. It was also intended to tackle inequalities and invest more in cancer research.

Today’s report finds that the plan has made considerable progress – by June this year, 98.9 per cent of people suspected to have cancer were seeing a specialist within two weeks, and 99 per cent of those diagnosed begin treatment within a month.

But it also warns that the plan must adapt to changes in treatments and in the NHS itself. For example, the strategy is focused on improving care for newly diagnosed patients, but with better treatment, cancer care is increasingly focused on survivors.

The King’s Fund also notes the number of cancer sufferers is likely to increase as the population gets older – currently about 75 per cent of all cancers are found in people aged over 60 and if this proportion remains constant, it will mean more cases diagnosed each year.

In addition, it warns that the cancer plan made no allowances for the structural reforms to the NHS, which have seen the introduction of foundation hospitals, payment by results and a new mantra of ‘patient choice’ over the past few days.

Some of these changes are at odds with the principles included in the cancer plan, the King’s Fund argues – for example, the plan is intended to be centrally enforced, whereas the new emphasis in the NHS is on local control and giving PCTs more freedom.

“The impact of recent NHS reform is gathering pace and it is essential that future cancer policy anticipates the challenges and opportunities of people living longer, technological changes and policy shifts throughout the NHS,” said senior fellow Dr Rebecca Rosen.

Hilary Cross of Macmillan Cancer Support welcomed today’s report, saying a new cancer plan was needed to address the “emotional, financial and practical support” needed for all cancer patients and their families.

The chief executive of Cancer Research UK, Professor Alex Markham, said the report was right to recognise that the cancer plan had been “massively successful” in transforming cancer services in England.

“But it also underlines the necessity of updating the cancer plan to continue to improve services over the next decade. now is precisely the time when the NHS should be planning for the longer term,” he said.