Without having to think very hard, I can name five of my friends who in their forties have been diagnosed with cancer. For all our sophisticated medicine, cancer remains the leading cause of premature death. Last week we heard from Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem social care minister that England’s 20 cancer networks are facing financial cuts. Yesterday we published the report “Cancer Commissioning – Making the reforms work for patients” on just how important these Cancer Networks are and that to jeopardise them through a reduction in funding risks losing the progress that we have made on cancer over the past few years.
Cancer Networks were introduced in 2000 to encourage the providers of cancer care and the commissioners of cancer care (those who buy, monitor and evaluate services) to work together in order to deliver quality, personalised cancer services to patients. They have over time become widely acknowledged in many areas to have transformed patient’s experiences and outcomes. The Networks have achieved what much of the rest of the NHS still strives for, that being an integrated approach between hospital and community services, sharing best practice and involving cancer patients and the groups that represent them.
Survival rates for the ‘big four’ cancers – breast, colon, lung and prostate – have improved over the last five years, with figures showing that we are finally catching up with other countries where survival has been better. The 2020Health report argues these improvements in patient outcomes are “directly attributable” to the introduction of Cancer Networks. One former NHS pharmacist told us that before Networks, cancer care was chaotic and poorly coordinated. Networks transformed both the quality and efficiency of the care patients received.The Networks have the combined expertise that individual GPs, doctors and specialists lack and access to their wealth of knowledge has ensured that many more people have been diagnosed promptly and accurately. Yet only today I heard of five members of one Network being given their notices by a PCT – this cannot be in the best interests of patients.
As with the rest of the NHS, there is room for improvement when it comes to accountability for the care given. Strengthen the mechanisms of accountability and we will improve how we plan and manage cancer care. We should know what the 1 and 5 year survival rates are for our local health trust (PCT) or their replacement GP run Clinical Commissioning Group, along with how many people don’t have their cancer diagnosed until they reach A&E and how advance it is. Only then will we as the public have the relevant information on how well their local NHS is performing. Failure to have this knowledge, and any changes that weaken Cancer Networks could literally be the difference between life and death.
First published in the Daily Mail Blog 28th June 2012