Hospital Dr News

Cancer waits will rise due to staff shortages and Covid-19

The supply of specialist cancer doctors is continuing to fall behind NHS demand, says the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR).

Oncology leaders at the RCR have warned that patients face poorer outcomes as the understaffed oncology workforce battles ongoing demand, restricted capacity due to infection control measures and a predicted surge in new cases because of coronavirus delays.

The RCR’s clinical oncology workforce census shows that clinical oncologist shortages have worsened over the past three years.

The NHS has just five more full-time clinical oncologists now than it did in 2018 – but it needs at least another 200 more.

UK-trained consultants will only fill half of current vacancies, senior consultants are retiring earlier and hospitals have been struggling to recruit from abroad, the report finds.

The clinical oncology workforce is now understaffed by 19% (207 consultants) – without investment the shortfall will hit at least 26 per cent by 2024. 

RCR figures show that at the end of 2019 there were 938 clinical oncology consultants working across the UK’s 62 cancer centres.

Factoring in retirements and part-time working, this equates to 868 full-time doctors – an increase of just five extra full-time consultants from 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of new cancer patients needing non-surgical treatment is rising by an estimated 165,000 each year.

Non-surgical cancer care has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but patient turnaround has slowed down as cancer centres have had to manage staff sickness and reduced capacity due to social distancing and cleaning requirements. 

The cancer community is also anticipating seeing a surge of new patients whose diagnosis and treatment has been delayed because of the virus, and its likely to hit in the autumn.

Dr Tom Roques, the RCR’s Medical Director of Professional Practice for Clinical Oncology and lead author of the workforce report, said: “NHS cancer teams were working flat out before coronavirus hit and have continued to provide services during the pandemic. We just do not have the capacity to provide the same level of care as before when we are faced with a new peak of cancer referrals and given the added pressures of coronavirus.

“Without more staff and more resources, it is hard to see how we will ever improve our cancer survival rates.”

The RCR estimates 48 new UK-qualified consultants could join the workforce this year, if they are all able to complete their training around service disruptions and redeployment due to coronavirus – but they will not be enough to fill the UK’s 93 vacant posts, let alone meet the estimated shortfall of 207 consultants.

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