UK cancer care suffers with staff shortages

A SHORTAGE of clinical oncologists threatens future cancer care in the UK.

The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) has published a report highlighting a growing shortage of staff, with 1 in 6 UK cancer centres now operating with fewer clinical oncologists than five years ago.

It found that the number of vacant consultant clinical oncology posts (70) has doubled from five years ago and over half have remained vacant for over a year. A total of 53 new UK-qualified consultants are set to enter the workforce in 2019 but this number will be insufficient to fill the posts left empty in 2018.

The gap between supply and demand is forecast to widen in the next five years, with the current shortfall of 184 whole-time equivalent (18 per cent) consultant clinical oncologists expected to rise to an estimated shortfall of 272 WTE (22 per cent) in 2023.

The RCR estimates that the NHS will need a minimum of 1,214 full-time cancer doctors by 2023 and based on current trends there will only be 942.

Attempts to recruit from abroad have been patchy, with only five centres successfully hiring overseas doctors last year. Reported issues include not having the resources to support consultants trained overseas, as well practical problems with remote job interviews and needing more hospital HR expertise to deal with complex overseas recruitment issues.

The RCR states that nearly 1,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every day, and demand for radiotherapy and chemotherapy services are going up by two and four per cent a year, respectively. Although the number of consultant clinical oncologists in the UK is growing, the increase is not keeping up with the needs of hospitals and patients.

Dr Tom Roques, the RCR’s Medical Director of Professional Practice for Clinical Oncology and lead author of the workforce report, said: "Today’s RCR workforce figures and forecasts show our cancer hospitals under immense strain – some centres have seen a reduction or stall in consultant numbers and many are desperate but failing to recruit, predominantly because we do not have enough consultants in training.

"We predict that by 2023 the workforce will be more than 20 per cent short-staffed, and we are really concerned that it is people with cancer who will suffer, with less clinical oncologists’ expert time to go around.

"Central and devolved governments and their related health workforce agencies must face up to these findings and act on them now to boost clinical oncologist numbers, as well as improving working practices to help keep them in the NHS, for the sake of all current and future cancer patients."