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NHS cancer treatment facing a ‘diagnostic bottleneck’, says CRUK

NHS pathology services are struggling to keep up with the growing number of samples taken from people being tested for cancer, according to a Cancer Research UK (CRUK) report.

The lack of capacity for pathology services is due to staff members not growing to meet the rising demand for tests, including biopsies and blood tests, as an ageing and growing population produces more cases of suspected cancer.

Up to 70% of healthcare decisions made in the NHS rely on pathology-based tests and investigations. Experts fear that a shortage of people trained and employed in pathology could hamper efforts to improve the UK’s poor record in early identification of cancer, along with the identification of other conditions.

Emma Greenwood, CRUK’s director of policy, said: “Diagnostic services, including pathology, urgently need support and investment to ensure that diagnoses aren’t delayed and patients benefit from the latest treatment.

“The UK’s cancer survival is lagging behind other European countries and improving early diagnosis through diagnostic services is one of the ways to address this. The diagnostic bottleneck will only get worse without action now and this involves addressing staff shortages in imaging, endoscopy and pathology.”

The organisation’s report recommends that action must be taken to address current and potential future shortfalls in the pathology workforce, arguing that those in charge of medical education must train and employ more pathologists to meet the increasing demand.

Pathologists not only diagnose cancer but also play a vital role in preventing, treating and monitoring the condition, and are at the frontline of cancer research.

The report suggests that the Royal College of Pathologists (RCPath) look at ways to attract medical students to train in pathology, a recommendation that the RCPath’s President Dr Suzy Lishman welcomed. 

“It is predicted that half the people born since 1960 will develop cancer at some point in their lives. We know that the earlier that cancer is diagnosed the better the chance of survival. An increase in the number of pathologists is essential to ensure early diagnosis and the most effective treatment,” Dr Lishman commented.

“We welcome this important report from CRUK, which clearly makes the case for investment in pathology staff and services. Having the right staff with the right skills will make sure people referred for cancer tests are diagnosed as quickly and accurately as possible.”

The need for faster pathology services was put into context by the charity Target Ovarian Cancer – the deadliest cancer for women – when it announced the results of its Pathfinder 2016 study. Research undertaken by the charity found that two in five women (41%) visited their GP at least three times before they were referred for tests for ovarian cancer, risking a delay in their diagnosis.

Cancer services are also facing criticism elsewhere, with 85% of CCGs currently failing against their cancer benchmarks according to NHS England figures – a situation that has been branded “very concerning” and symptomatic of wider NHS struggles.

The latest performance figures for the provider sector also showed that national cancer standards are not being met, with just 82.8% of patients beginning a first definitive treatment within 62 days from an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.

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Susanna Breyer   28/11/2016 at 21:47

If I had to go back into pathology I would not do it today. PAthologists are not even considered doctors any more we are equivalent to an analyzer spitting out data: baloney! A modern pathologist requires: Respect and esteem ; not only from the colleagues but from the entire NHsystem same is true for the educational programs for new doctors. DOctors have no clue of what pathologists do nor does the public at large. We are inconvenient for many players in drug development in cancer therapy and for superegos in general and we are not at the table when decisions are taken just to be blamed afterwards that we are the bottleneck: if you had pathologists at the table INITIALLY you would not what to expect We are humans NOT MACHINES. Seconds: funding not crumbs for the labs Third adequate salary Fourth staffing and formative schools for the technical staff

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