SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NHS LONG TERM PLAN

I do not suppose that I am alone in finding that as far as cancer is concerned the NHS Long Term Plan, published on Monday, is admirable if somewhat underwhelming and, to be fair, cancer is only a small element in the whole. Its primary focus is on diagnosis.  There is no mention of the loss of valuable skills caused by Andrew Lansley as Secretary of State for Health in 2010-12, although work on Cancer Alliances to mend the damage proceeds.

The paragraphs on cancer in the Long Term Plan start with the following:

3.51. Cancer survival is the highest it’s ever been and thousands more people now survive cancer every year. For patients diagnosed in 2015, one year survival was 72% – over 11 percentage points higher than in 2000.

As a general point that should be borne in mind, even if NHS idiosyncrasy was not taken into consideration, evolution in clinical practice would account for much of that improvement. Indeed it can be argued that if progress on the 2007 Cancer Reform Strategy had not been politically diverted we would be showing even further improvement.  Things have obviously moved on and while not all of the 2007 ambitions were achieved the NAEDI National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, led by Cancer Research UK for the last 10 years, has been critically important. It identified many of the factors which result from the behaviour of patients, GPs or the wider NHS, in the diagnostic process and it underpins what is now planned.

The NHS Long Term Plan has these promises.

Assuming that full funding for these developments is forthcoming in practice and that staffing issues for radiographers, radiologists, pathologists, laboratory staff, nurses and oncologists of all kinds are addressed (given the effects of the B word) this will be a very welcome development and will go a long way towards meeting the cancer survival ambitions.

There is however a shadow, identified in the Health Foundation report Unfinished Businesspublished shortly before Christmas. This is the role of GPs as ‘gatekeepers’. Those with undiagnosed cancer rely on a GP having suspicion and initiating tests (the right tests) or making a referral. That will not alter although the frustrated will be able to self-refer to a Rapid Diagnostic Centre. These will certainly pick up some of the otherwise undiagnosed but not all. Indeed there will be some who attend a Rapid Diagnostic Centre who may not be diagnosed early – a small percentage of false negatives come from almost any test, there are always interpretation issues and some rare cancers have barely discernible characteristics at their early stage.  So from a patient viewpoint this is a welcome step forward but quantifying its potential is massively uncertain and success will rely on the skills levels available in the Diagnostic Centres, especially those located at a distance from a major cancer centre.

3.52. This Long Term Plan sets a new ambition that, by 2028, the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 will rise from around half now to three-quarters of cancer patients.

In 2007 we could not have stated an ambition in those terms. This target comes from the work that has been done on data, initiated in 2007. The National Cancer Registration & Analysis Services is a world leader in cancer data. In each tumour type the push to record staging data at diagnosis in the initial cancer registration is resulting in a much more accurate picture of prognosis at diagnosis. This can be compared with the eventual treatment outcome and also provides for targets such as this one.

The NHS remains excellent at creating ambitions while overlooking some of the issues. There are two things evident in the NHS Long Term Plan. First, it is not a plain English document.  Second it did not involve independently minded patients in its development but we have now come to expect that. Patient involvement has been reduced to tokenism in NHS cancer service provision. It cannot be described as patient-centred any more and a key weakness of the whole structure is that the voice of end-users is missing. The charities, good as many of them are, are not a substitute.

On the matter of creating ambitions while overlooking some of the issues I find it hard to believe that a faster diagnosis standard for sarcoma will emerge without resourcing specialist sarcoma units to handle it. Pathology skills, one example, are already at a premium. Over 50 primary diagnoses, with many variants by location, histology and surgical feasibility, suggest that words like “all” and “full”, which appear throughout the new plan, could be unrealistic. The case for genetic profiling to take over the challenge has no evidence base and apart from profiling the whole population I cannot see it working for sarcoma. I should like to be proved wrong.