Top story: Report highlights backlog of cancer treatments post pandemic

11 October 2021

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is a registered charity and a progressive think tank. It has now published ‘Building back cancer services in England’ a report which examines the condition of cancer services in England following the coronavirus pandemic and how services might best recover.

The report shows that the pandemic has severely affected cancer services in England with widespread disruptions across the cancer care pathway – screening, referrals, diagnostic and treatment services all seeing reductions in activity. Reductions and delays in cancer referrals during the first wave of the pandemic are estimated to have undone years of improvements in five-year survival rates from lung, breast and colorectal cancer. There are considerable ‘missing patient backlogs’ in cancer-relevant services. When comparing data from March 2020 to February 2021 to the previous 12-month period the report shows that the pandemic has led to fewer endoscopies, a reduction in MRI scans and fewer CT scans being performed. 

During the first year of the pandemic, 369,000 fewer people than expected were referred to a specialist for a suspected new cancer diagnosis leading to 19,500 missing cancer diagnoses. The incidence rate of cancer has not changed yet 187,000 fewer episodes of chemotherapy and 15,000 fewer episodes of radiotherapy were delivered. 

In terms of recommendations for recovery ‘Building back cancer services in England’ urges a government rethink on funding. The government recently announced a three-year funding plan for the health service but this would be around one half of the amount NHS Providers and NHS Confederation say is required to recover from the pandemic. 

Outside of increasing funding the report indicates that there are three main areas where the NHS in England should focus in order for cancer services to emerge from the pandemic with the ability to address these backlogs 

1. Build capacity: this must include plans to expand the workforce and diagnostic capacity.

2. Harness innovation:  Improving uptake of technological advances and re-thinking service design will improve survival outcomes and improve productivity.

3. Better prevention: the ambition should be to prevent many cancers developing and reduce demands on the health service. Ideas to bring this about could include a tobacco levy, a junk food tax and a fruit and vegetable subsidy

The full report and its recommendations are available here