Bishop of Carlisle highlights need for cancer care improvements

On 25th January 2018  Baroness Jowell hosted a debate in the House of Lords “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to evaluate innovative cancer treatments and make them available through the National Health Service, and to raise life expectancy for cancer patients”. The Bishop of Carlisle, Rt Revd James Newcome, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak in this debate. I begin by observing that although, as we have heard, we currently have one of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe, the overall 10-year survival rate for all cancers in the UK has improved from 25% a few decades ago to 50% today. The laudable and ambitious goal of our cancer strategy is to make that 75% within the next decade, thereby not only catching up with but surpassing international, and especially European, averages. Cancer Research UK, among other agencies, is currently researching possible therapeutic interventions, many of them innovative, in a range of more than 200 different types of cancer, and that is something to celebrate. However, I suggest that three vital conditions need to be met if those aspirations are to be achieved.

The first, as others have mentioned, is proper funding for research as well as for the highest-quality treatment available for all cancer patients. This is obviously a major challenge for an NHS which is strapped for cash and for a country which faces so many massive, competing demands for its resources. In the previous debate today, I and others referred to the recent report of the Lords Select Committee on The Long-term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care. I beg your Lordships’ indulgence to do so again now, as that report, which I hope we will soon be able to debate, directly addresses this issue.

The second condition is prioritising planning, especially of the workforce. Health Education England’s cancer workforce plan talks about training 300 more endoscopists and 200 more radiographers, and about every patient having access to a cancer nurse specialist by 2021. That is most encouraging but it has to be seen in the context of a significant shortage of staff trained to perform tests necessary for diagnosing cancer and alarming forecasts about future vacancies. For instance, 28% of radiographers are due to leave by 2021. The APPG on cancer concludes that NHS England will struggle to achieve the objectives set out in the cancer strategy unless corrective action is taken immediately—and that includes taking the NHS out of party politics in order to encourage long-term plans.

The final condition is putting patient outcomes ahead of process target performance. This is essential for identifying treatments for inclusion within the NHS. It also applies to the release of funding, both for early diagnosis and support for life after treatment. Several cancer care alliances have had their funding delayed because of their lack of progress against the 62-day wait standard, and some genomic diagnostic testing is in danger of being withdrawn even though that may mean that thousands of cancer patients may have to endure what, for them, would be unnecessary and debilitating chemotherapy. Good patient outcomes include not only increased life expectancy through cure or slowing down the disease but the prospect of improved palliative care.

I welcome this short debate on innovative cancer treatments and, like everyone else, I am grateful to the noble and courageous Baroness, Lady Jowell, for securing it. I hope that its outcome will be another step forward for cancer patients everywhere.