In Brief

Cancer doctors shortage ‘putting patient welfare at risk’

New report says falling number of specialists is leading to longer waiting times for treatment

A shortage of specialists at the UK’s major cancer centres is causing longer patient waiting times and forcing existing staff to work more overtime, experts are warning.

A newly published report from the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) says the “dire” staffing levels are seeing more than half of vacant posts remaining empty for longer than a year, Sky News reports.

The NHS says it is combating the problem by opening up more training places for doctors to increase numbers, while also investing more resources into cancer centres. 

But the RCR claims this was not enough to meet increased demand for care, particularly given the number of doctors who are retiring, says the BBC. More than half of all clinical oncologists quit before the age of 60 as the stress of the job takes its toll.

A census of 62 cancer centres revealed a doctor vacancy rate of more than 7.5%, an increase of 2.5% in five years. Meanwhile, demand for radiotherapy is rising by 2% every year, while demand for chemotherapy is increasing at double that rate.

Dr Tom Roques, lead author of the RCR report, applauded the UK’s recent cancer treatment advances but emphasised the need for urgent action to ensure there are enough doctors to carry them out.

“These doctors are vital to the rollout of these new therapies but we do not have enough of them and our workforce projections are increasingly bleak,” he said. 

In 2018, there were 863 full-time equivalent clinical oncology consultants working across the UK.

This is up 46 on the previous year, but the RCR says the increase is not keeping up with demand, with 70 posts left unfilled. 

The shortages have left working oncologists to pick up the slack by putting in an extra six hours of overtime each week, on average.

The crisis is also increasing patient waiting times, which are at a record high in England.

The Government has pledged an extra £20bn a year to NHS England’s budget by 2023, as well as increased funding to other parts of the UK.

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