UK ‘lagging behind’ on cancer care

The government has been forced to defend its cancer care after research claimed investment is not matched by results.

Research published in the Lancet Oncology medical journal found cancer survival rates in the UK were lagging behind many other European nations, despite spending significantly more on healthcare.

However, the Department of Health (DoH) said the researchers mainly looked at the period prior to the government’s Cancer Plan launched in 2000, and thereby omitted many improvements in present cancer care.

The researchers found cancer survival rates were best in Nordic countries, while the UK achieved cancer survival rates on a par with eastern European nations.

The report said: “Overall, survival for all cancers combined in the UK as a whole is not only below the European average, it is also noticeably similar to some eastern European countries that spend less than one third of the UK’s per capita healthcare budget.”

A DoH spokesman insisted cancer survival rates had improved since the period included in the research.

He said: “Cancer services in England have made great improvements since we published the NHS Cancer Plan in 2000. Between 1996 and 2004 cancer mortality in people under 75 fell by nearly 16 per cent. This equates to over 50,000 lives saved.

“We are currently working with people from across the field of cancer to develop a new Cancer Reform Strategy, which will set out the plans for cancer services in England over the next five to ten years, building on progress so far by spreading best practice and recommending what more needs to be done to improve clinical outcomes, drive up quality and increase value for money.”

He said the new strategy would recognise the challenges posed by the rising number of cancer cases as well as patients’ heightened expectations.

Professor Richard Sullivan, Cancer Research UK’s director of clinical programmes, added that a straightforward comparison between countries is difficult because cancer statistics are not collected in a uniform way.

He also agreed the figures had improved since the government’s Cancer Plan was introduced.

But Professor Sullivan said: “Cancer is still not being diagnosed early enough in all cases. And we need to ensure that patients have access to the best surgery, radiotherapy and other treatments.

“This study shows that cancer is certainly not a ‘ticked box’. We need a sustained effort to beat the disease.”

The report claims that if all countries improved their cancer survival rates to match Icelandic standards, deaths from cancer would fall by 12 per cent, equal to 150,000 lives saved across Europe.