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Late diagnosis and lack of investment in new treatments contribute to low survival rates for UK cancer patients

Posted: 20/07/2017

A report prepared by the Swedish Institute for Health Economics has found that cancer survival rates in the UK lag behind those of other European countries in nine out of ten of the most common cancers – only exceeding the EU average in melanoma (a type of skin cancer).

Although cancer survival rates have increased in the UK over the years, they are still trailing behind the rest of Europe with late diagnosis and rationing of key drugs thought to be to blame. Experts described the findings as ‘shocking and completely unacceptable’.

Cancer rates are increasing across the UK and Europe, driven largely by an ageing population.  ‘Survival’ is defined as a patient being alive five years after diagnosis and treatment.

According to the report, there have been improvements in the UK in survival from breast, prostate and testicular cancers but there has been very little change in other cancers like oesophageal, lung and pancreatic cancer. For ovarian cancer, a disease which hits 7,000 British women each year, the UK has the worst survival rates in Europe with only 34 per cent surviving, compared to an average of 41 per cent.

Survival is affected by many factors including how early a cancer is diagnosed and availability of effective treatments. NHS England said: “The biggest opportunities for further improvements in UK cancer survival currently come mainly from earlier diagnosis and modern radiotherapy and surgery, as against just higher spending on cancer drugs.”

Experts believe that cancer patients in the UK are being diagnosed too late. With many more people having cancer check-ups, late diagnosis should not be an issue. The NHS is looking to recruit 5,000 more GPs by 2020 to increase the diagnostic workforce.

The report shows that the UK is slower at adopting innovative cancer medicines than other countries, suggesting that patients are missing out on the latest innovations, due to lack of funds available to fund treatments. The UK spends over 20 per cent less per person on cancer than the top five EU economies, with Germany spending almost twice as much. The authors of the report claim that if the UK achieved the cancer survival rates of Germany, over 35,000 more people would be alive five years after diagnosis.

Richard Torbett, executive director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), which funded the study, said: “It is quite clear that outcomes in the vast majority of cancers are not where they need to be in the UK. The report shows the impact that comparatively lower levels of UK investment in cancer is having on the quality of care available to British patients.”

Elise Bevan, a solicitor in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP, commented: “These findings should be the warning that is needed for the Government to re-think the way we tackle cancer. Early diagnosis is an important part of improving survival rates and in this day and age, there should be no reason why it is not possible. As lawyers specialising in cancer claims, the majority of cases we deal with concern a delay in diagnosis. Consideration needs to be given to why this is happening and how to address the problem, whether more training for doctors is required or better resources need to be available.

“The report has shown that part of the problem lies with the availability of modern cancer treatments. Investment in treatment in other European countries is leading to better survival rates and we need to take note of this in the UK. NHS England has a strategy to improve cancer prevention, early diagnosis and survival by 2020, but without significant investment in the diagnostic workforce and new cancer drugs, we believe the targets are likely to be missed. Patients in the UK are not receiving the same care as their European counterparts and this is not acceptable.”

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