We must rise to meet the challenge facing cancer diagnostics

We must rise to meet the challenge facing cancer diagnostics

As we continue to grapple with the second wave of Covid-19, it is important that we keep in mind some of the other pressing public health challenges we face as a direct consequence of pandemic-related restrictions. Cancer care across the UK has experienced unprecedented upheaval with serious consequences for patient outcomes.

The first lockdown alone had caused a 70% drop in referrals and many thousands of cancer patients saw their treatments and diagnostic tests delayed. Entire cancer pathways at some NHS Trusts were severely cut down to make way for Covid-19 wards. Whilst treatment for cancer is gradually returning to normal pre-Covid capacity, we continue to face significant challenges with cancer diagnosis.

The latest figures from Cancer Research UK on the diagnostics crisis we are facing make for troubling reading; a 35% drop for chest and abdomen CT scans, 42% drop in brain MRIs and a 39% drop in chest X-rays. This amounts to a very substantial reduction in crucial diagnostic testing capacity. Getting a prompt imaging test can be the difference between life and death for some patients.

Having stable pathways for diagnostics and testing is pivotal for cancer care and in particular for identifying cancers early. An early diagnosis can also make the difference between life and death in some patients. Such disruptions to diagnostics pathways will inevitably lead to more and more cancer patients coming into the system with late-stage cancers in the months to come, which will place greater strain on the healthcare system and require more aggressive and even more advanced treatments.

To overcome this, we must act collaboratively. The government and the NHS have done a very good job at using up spare capacity in the independent sector to deal with the surgical backlog but this has not been the case for cancer.

As cancer patients come through the system in larger numbers with late-stage cancers in months to come, 2021 is set to become the year of the cancer backlogs. We must prepare for this now or risk losing years to the fight against cancer. For a start, the diagnostics gap must be plugged using independent sector capacity.

Patients with late-stage cancers should be given the priority they deserve and this means the use of advanced treatments such as high energy proton beam therapy to deal with more aggressive and harder to reach tumours. With sufficient collaboration and inventiveness, we can overcome this challenge and ensure that cancer patients across the country have the confidence they need to overcome their cancers and lead a normal life.

By Mike Moran, chief executive officer, Rutherford Health.