A new report shows that cancer waiting times will rise unless urgent action is taken address specialist shortages.

The NHS only has five more clinical oncologists than it did in 2018 and needs at least 200 more to meet expected levels of patient demand. This is according to new figures from the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR).

The RCR have warned that patients face poorer outcomes and less chance of having their cancer cured as the understaffed oncology workforce battles ongoing demand, restricted capacity due to infection control measures and a predicted surge in new cases because of coronavirus delays.

RCR figures show that at the end of 2019 there were 938 clinical oncology consultants working across the UK’s 62 cancer centres. Factoring in retirements and part-time working, this equates to 868 full-time doctors – an increase of just five extra full-time consultants from 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of new cancer patients needing non-surgical treatment is rising by an estimated 165,000 each year. The cancer community is also anticipating seeing a surge of new patients whose diagnosis and treatment has been delayed because of the virus, likely to hit in the autumn.

The RCR’s clinical oncology workforce census documents the UK’s provision of clinical oncology consultants – the doctors who treat cancer with non-surgical means such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

The latest UK-wide report was returned in December 2019, prior to the pandemic. The findings were released on Wednesday.

Key findings from the report:

  • Clinical oncologist shortages have escalated rapidly over the past three years
  • The NHS has just five more full-time clinical oncologists now than it did in 2018 – but it needs at least another 200 more
  • UK-trained consultants will only fill half of current vacancies, meanwhile exhausted consultants are retiring earlier and hospitals have been struggling to recruit from abroad
  • The clinical oncology workforce is now understaffed by 19 per cent (207 consultants) – without investment the shortfall will hit at least 26 per cent by 2024. 

Non-surgical cancer care has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but patient turnaround has slowed down as cancer centres have had to manage staff sickness and reduced capacity due to social distancing and cleaning requirements. 

Cancer centres have routinely struggled to recruit from overseas, citing training differences, budget constraints and HR issues, as well as problems with visas and English language requirements. 

The RCR census report makes various recommendations to boost the clinical oncologist workforce and protect cancer patients, including doubling the number of trainee consultants, improving working conditions to increase staff retention and streamlining international recruitment processes.

Dr Tom Roques, the RCR’s Medical Director of Professional Practice for Clinical Oncology and lead author of the workforce report, said: “NHS cancer teams were working flat out before coronavirus hit and have continued to provide services during the pandemic. We just do not have the capacity to provide the same level of care as before when we are faced with a new peak of cancer referrals and given the added pressures of coronavirus.

“Delayed access to diagnosis, compounded with clinical oncologist shortages, will inevitably mean patients waiting longer to see a cancer expert, with worse outcomes and less chance of curing their cancer.

“The UK workforce needs at least another 200 more clinical oncologists to keep up with demand, but the stark reality is last year it only had an overall gain of five consultants. Without more staff and more resources, it is hard to see how we will ever improve our cancer survival rates.”  

Click here to read the full Clinical Oncology UK Workforce Census Report 2019.