Improving Cancer Outcomes – Identifying challenges for the next government

With the election period drawing to a close, and with a new government on the horizon, the parties will shortly be looking at how they deliver on the pledges set out in their manifestos.

Policy promises have been plentiful during the election period, no more so in this campaign than with the health service. However, there has been one important area within health where the quantity and quality of announcements has fallen short: cancer.

Whitehouse has produced an analytical paper outlining the four key challenges that the next government will face when improving outcomes and experiences of cancer, exploring what the main parties have pledged to do to achieve these treatments.

Cancer Drugs Fund

Largely absent from the pre-election debate has been the future of the Cancer Drugs Fund, established in 2011 to provide funding for cancer drugs which have not been approved by NICE. Although the fund is due to expire in March 2016, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are refusing to comment on whether it will be extended or replaced. Labour have suggested replacing it with the Cancer Treatments Fund, which would expand the remit to include radiotherapy and non-drug treatments.

The Fund can offer patients and their families a few extra months together; however many in the charity, the pharmaceutical industry and other experts consider it a costly short term solution which doesn’t address the funding of cancer drugs in the long term. The next government needs to develop a long-term way of providing innovative cancer drugs without stretching the drugs budget to breaking point.

Identification, diagnosis and screening

All the main parties have announced measures to improve identification, diagnosis and screening. These have largely focused on increasing GP numbers to improve access and expanding surgery opening times. Whilst this may yield results for cancers with clear signs and symptoms, it does not address the need for appropriate diagnostic tools for cancers with vaguer symptoms. The next cancer strategy will need to address this.

Improving the quality and consistency of care

While promises from Labour to increase the number of nurses are welcome, recruitment needs to include a focus on the right skills. Successive Cancer Patient Experience Surveys have found a strong correlation between access to clinical nurse specialists and positive patient experience. Although access has been improving in recent years, access for patients with rarer cancers has lagged behind the trend, with almost 1/5th (17%) missing out. The next government must ensure that patients, including those with rarer cancers, are able to access this specialist care.

Improving levels of research

Finally, the next government ensure that the UK continues to drive research to develop innovative treatments. The Coalition has invested £100 million in a DNA mapping project towards this goal.

With a new cancer strategy due in the next year, the opportunity is ripe for a solid plan to improve cancer research.

The full version of Whitehouse’s paper, Improving cancer outcomes: Identifying the challenges for the next government, can be found here.