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Scotland: Staff shortages put cancer survival rates at risk

Report should be ‘wake-up call’ to Scottish government

Jo Carlowe

Monday, 18 November 2019

Staff shortages are putting cancer survival rates at risks, a new report* shows.

The Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Cancer reports that government’s plans to tackle this issue have failed to take a long-term approach and have been insufficiently funded, hindering efforts to ensure more patients survive the disease.


In June 2019, more than 18% patients were waiting for longer than the Scottish government target of six weeks for a key diagnostic test – more than double the proportion compared to just three years ago.

The findings will be presented today (Monday) at the Scottish Cancer Conference in Glasgow by Cross Party Group (CPG) co-convener Anas Sarwar MSP.

Mr Sarwar said: “This report must serve as an urgent wake-up call for the Scottish government.

“Cancer survival is being put at risk because of a chronic staffing shortage in our NHS. This has devastating consequences for patients with cancer and their families and friends.

“With a growing and ageing population, the time for action is now. We need a long-term workforce plan backed up by sufficient investment and resources to save lives in Scotland.”

Every year around 32,200 people in Scotland are diagnosed with the disease.

By 2035, it has been estimated that this will rise by around a quarter with more than 40,000 people in Scotland expected to be diagnosed with cancer annually.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell, who will also address the Scottish Cancer Conference, said: "The findings of this inquiry are deeply concerning. Diagnosing cancer early can make all the difference, but there are major shortages in the staff trained to carry out the tests that diagnose cancer.

“Cancer services in Scotland are already struggling. Without urgent action, this will only worsen as demand increases.

“The Scottish government must act now and publish a long-term cancer workforce plan – to enable the NHS to do its best by patients today and prepare for rising demand in the future.”

Last month a report by ISD Scotland showed that cancer continues to kill more people in Scotland than any other disease. More than 16,000 people in Scotland died from cancer in 2018.

CPG co-convenor Miles Briggs said urgent action was needed to improve cancer services if more people in Scotland were to survive following a diagnosis.

“The in-depth inquiry conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Cancer has highlighted in stark terms the major challenges facing cancer services and the failure of Scottish government minsters to provide for the increasing and changing workforce needs especially in the delivery diagnostic services,” he said.

“The key message from the inquiry is there simply isn’t enough NHS staff to do the job and, after more than 12 years in control of health, Scottish ministers have not met this priority and outcome in the Cancer Strategy.

“Scottish ministers have been warned repeatedly about the impact of this not just on cancer patients, but also on over-stretched NHS staff too.

“A damning report like this must spur Scottish ministers into action. We now need to see urgent action to improve cancer services across Scotland.”

Responding to the report, health secretary Jeane Freeman described cancer as an “absolute priority for the Scottish government.”

Citing a downward trend in cancer mortality rates, she said: “Our £100m cancer strategy is focused on improving survival rates and ensuring we have the right workforce. Early detection of cancer is crucial to this continued improvement which is why last year the Scottish government launched a £850m waiting times improvement plan.”

She added: “It is important to note that Scotland will be the first nation in the UK to offer a key support worker to help with the financial, emotional and wider impacts of living with cancer in recognition of the wider impact on patients and their families.”


*Cross-Party Group on Cancer Inquirey Report: Priorities for the Future of Cancer Services, Support and Research in Scotland. A report by the Cross-Party Group on Cancer, November 2019.

Image of Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell, courtesy of Cancer Research UK.

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