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Future of cancer care endangered by clinical oncologist shortages, report says

Cancer centres are facing a workforce crisis with widespread staff shortages, a royal college report shows.

The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) annual workforce report on clinical oncologists details the current staffing crisis nationally among the doctors who treat cancer with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

NHS leaders have questioned how the NHS will be able to roll out cutting-edge life-saving innovations – such as immunotherapy drugs and high energy proton beam radiotherapy – without more investment.

The RCR’s Clinical Oncology UK Workforce Census Report 2018 reveals:

  • One-in-six UK cancer centres now operates with fewer clinical oncology consultants than five years ago
  • Vacancies for clinical oncology posts are now double what they were in 2013 – with more than half of vacant posts empty for a year or more
  • The clinical oncology workforce is currently 18% understaffed and is predicted to grow to at least 22% by 2023
  • To close the gap between supply and demand for cancer doctors, oncology trainee numbers need to at least double. Even with that investment, the gap would not be closed until 2029.

The RCR report shows there were 922 clinical oncology consultants working across the UK’s 62 cancer centres in 2018. This equates to 863 doctors working full-time – an increase of 46 full-time consultants in practice compared to 2017.

Although the number of consultant clinical oncologists in the UK is growing, the increase is not keeping up with the needs of hospitals and patients. Nearly 1,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every day, and demand for radiotherapy and chemotherapy services are going up by 2% and 4%four a year respectively.

The UK is now short of at least 184 clinical oncologists – the minimum number needed to fill vacancies and cover the extra hours doctors are working to treat patients. This compares to shortfalls of 144 doctors in 2017 and 78 in 2016.

While 53 new UK-qualified consultants are set to enter the workforce in 2019, these new recruits will not be enough to fill the 70 posts left empty in 2018.

Last year, there were 70 funded vacancies for clinical oncology consultants, compared to 33 empty posts in 2013.

Dr Tom Roques, the RCR’s Medical Director of Professional Practice for Clinical Oncology and lead author of the workforce report, said: “Today’s RCR workforce figures and forecasts show our cancer hospitals under immense strain – some centres have seen a reduction or stall in consultant numbers and many are desperate but failing to recruit, predominantly because we do not have enough consultants in training.

“We predict that by 2023 the workforce will be more than 20% short-staffed, and we are really concerned that it is people with cancer who will suffer, with less clinical oncologists’ expert time to go around.”

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