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Cancer backlog may take a decade to clear

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25% fewer MRI scans have been performed 25% fewer MRI scans have been performed during the pandemic

It could take more than a decade to clear the cancer-treatment backlog in England, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

The report estimates 19,500 people who should have been diagnosed had not been, because of missed referrals. The analysis shows the backlog has been starkest in diagnostics, where the pandemic has led to 37% fewer endoscopies, 25% fewer MRI scans and 10% fewer CT scans being performed than expected.

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‘The pandemic has severely disrupted cancer services in England, undoing years of progress in improving cancer survival rates. Now the health service faces an enormous backlog of care that threatens to disrupt services for well over a decade. We know every delay poses risks to patients' chances of survival,’ said Dr Parth Patel, IPPR research fellow and an NHS Doctor.

‘Clearing the cancer care backlog before the next general election looks unlikely with the way the NHS is currently resourced, staffed and organised. The funding announced this month is just about enough to keep the health service afloat, but does not provide the funds needed to bring down pandemic backlogs as quickly as possible or transform service quality. The government has pledged to improve cancer survival in this country, which lags far behind most similar countries. That will take investment in diagnostic kit, immediate and long-term plans to expand the workforce and much bolder policy on prevention.’

The IPPR suggests that a workforce plan to support and reward healthcare workers and a revision of pension tax rules to increase the number of oncology consultants will immediately boost the size of the cancer workforce. There must also be investment to bring in more diagnostic machines as well as establishing more mobile and community diagnostic units. Expanding MRI scan capacity by 10% could clear the full MRI backlog in the NHS by 2024 instead of 2040.

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‘The impact of the pandemic on cancer services cannot be disassociated from the political and policy decisions that came before it. Years of austerity ripped the resilience out of cancer care, limiting our diagnostic capacity and reducing our ability to prevent people getting cancer in the first place. The government must not repeat the same mistakes and try to run an already burnt out NHS even hotter – with nothing like the right capacity, tools and resource,’ said Chris Thomas, IPPR senior research fellow.

‘;Returning cancer care to its pre-pandemic state is not sufficiently ambitious and will not deliver the rapidly improvement in cancer outcomes we need. The government must live up to their ‘build back better’ rhetoric and not just return us to the stagnating cancer survival rates seen pre-pandemic.’

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