The workforce crisis that has engulfed healthcare is now having a major impact upon oncology services, as workforce figures released by The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) reveal the “dire” struggle to staff cancer centres.

The RCR’s Clinical Oncology UK Workforce Census Report 2018 details the current staffing crisis among clinical oncologists – the doctors who treat cancer with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

The report has revealed that one-in-six cancer centres are currently operating with fewer clinical oncology consultants than five years ago, while demand has increased year on year.

Since 2013, vacancies in clinical oncology posts have doubled to of 184 – with more than half of these vacancies being left empty for over a year. Overall, the UK’s clinical oncology workforce is currently 18 per cent understaffed – without investment the shortfall is predicted to grow to at least 22 per cent by 2023.

A “dire” situation

The report shows there were 922 clinical oncology consultants working across 62 cancer centres in 2018, this is an increase of 46 full-time consultants in practice from 2017. However, while the number of consultant clinical oncologists in the UK is growing, the growth is not fast enough to keep up with demand upon services.

In 2018 alone 70 clinical oncology posts were left empty and, with only 53 newly qualified consultants set to enter the workforce in 2019, vacancy levels look set to rise again.

For the gap between the demand for oncology services and the workforce available to be closed, oncology trainee numbers would need to double and, even with this kind of investment, the gap would not be closed until 2029.

One cancer centre admitted to having no new job applicants since 2015, stating “the situation is dire.”

Putting innovation at risk

Leaders in clinical oncology fear that, without urgent investment, the NHS will struggle to rollout cutting edge innovations designed to save countless lives, such as immunotherapy drugs and high energy proton beam radiotherapy.

“The UK is seeing more and more fantastic innovations in cancer treatment,” said Dr Tom Roques, the RCR’s Medical Director of Professional Practice for Clinical Oncology and lead author of the report.

He continued, “but we do not have enough clinical oncologists and our workforce projections are increasingly bleak, which begs the question, what kind of service will we be able to provide for our patients in future?”